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December 13, 2011 

NRC Commissioners' Spat Obscures Longstanding Agency Failure to Ensure Nuclear Safety, Science Group Says

WASHINGTON (December 13, 2011)—The public dispute between four members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the agency’s chairman is a sideshow obscuring the longstanding problem with the NRC, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Simply put, the agency has failed to ensure U.S. nuclear power is as safe as it should—and could—be.

“The NRC’s failure to protect the public existed long before Gregory Jaczko became the NRC chairman,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist and co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program. “Congress should not be sidetracked into thinking he is the source of the problem or that his removal would be the solution.”

Congress will hold two hearings this week with the five NRC commissioners. The first hearing will be before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday at 10 a.m. EST in room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building and will be streamed live at Oversight.House.Gov. The second hearing will be hosted by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday at 10 a.m. EST in room 406 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and will be streamed live at Epw.Senate.Gov.

“These hearings should focus on the safety issues facing the U.S. reactor fleet rather than on NRC’s internal squabbling,” Gronlund said.

Gronlund and other UCS experts offered a number of suggestions for areas that Congress should explore during the two hearings. For example, they said Congress should make sure the NRC moves expeditiously to reduce U.S. reactors’ vulnerability to catastrophic natural events, and require plant owners to strengthen their plans to cope with station blackouts, which happen when there is no available AC power to keep reactors or spent fuel pools cool.

“The NRC shouldn’t let five years pass before it enacts post-Fukushima reforms,” Gronlund said.

UCS also urged the House and Senate committees to ask the commissioners about the four dozen reactors that still are not in compliance with fire safety regulations that were originally established in 1980 and amended in 2004. Fires, which could threaten back-up safety systems, comprise 50 percent of the risk of a reactor meltdown—as much as all other potential causes combined.

Congress also should prod NRC commissioners to require plant owners to take common-sense steps to improve the safety of spent fuel storage, Gronlund said. Owners currently store most if not all of their spent fuel in overfilled pools at reactor sites, increasing both the risk and potential consequences of an accident. They instead should transfer spent fuel to safer dry casks after five years, when it is cool enough to do so.

Finally, committee members also should demand stronger emergency planning requirements, Gronlund said. Current evacuation and mitigation plans cover only the area within a 10-mile radius of a reactor, which, in many cases, may not be adequate. For example, in Japan, high contamination levels were recorded far beyond 10 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The NRC should require plant owners to develop emergency plans for a larger area based on a scientific assessment of the populations at risk for each reactor site.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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