NRC members divided on timeframe for safety review

WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission pledged quick action on a task force report recommending sweeping safety changes for the U.S. nuclear industry.

But commission members were divided Tuesday on what that means. Three of the panel’s five members said they don’t believe they can vote on the full report within 90 days, as NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has suggested.

Still, commissioners told a Senate panel Tuesday that their disagreements were minor.

An NRC task force recommended a series of changes last month to reset the level of protection at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors. The changes are intended to make the plants better prepared for incidents they were not initially designed to handle, such as prolonged power blackouts or damage to multiple reactors.

The three-month investigation was triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that crippled a nuclear plant in Japan, resulting in core damage at several reactors, the loss of cooling at spent fuel pools and releases of radiation into the environment.

Commission members said the Japan crisis showed the need to update U.S. safety standards to respond to events that had previously been considered unlikely or even unthinkable.

“We all want to move forward quickly. We all want to do the right thing,” said Commissioner William Ostendorff.

Still, Ostendorff said he doubted whether the commission could consider all of the complex issues mentioned in the report within 90 days.

Ostendorff, a Republican who has clashed with Democrat Jaczko over nuclear waste storage and other issues, said no one wants to delay action unnecessarily, but added: “Not all these recommendations are equal.”

As many as six of the report’s 12 recommendations “should be done right now,” Ostendorff told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “and there’s some that require a little bit more information.”

Jaczko, who has publicly urged the commission to vote on the recommendations by early October, called the dispute over timing minor, adding: “I think there’s far more areas of agreement than disagreement” on the commission.

Still, Jaczko said he believes strongly that the commission should act on the July 13 report within 90 days. “I think that’s something that’s doable,” he said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the environment panel, said the Japan crisis showed the urgency of the commission’s task. She noted that some NRC changes prompted by the 2001 terrorist attacks were just being finalized, a standard she called unacceptable.

“It took 90 days for the task force to make their recommendations. It should not take longer than 90 days for the NRC to accept or reject them and move toward implementation,” Boxer said. “Any stalling will not be viewed favorably by the American people.”

The NRC task force said there is no imminent risk to public health and the environment from operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. But members said the agency’s current “patchwork” of regulations needs to be updated and standardized.

Jaczko and other commissioners appeared to agree that the agency needs new standards to evaluate earthquake and flood risks, and to extend the timeframe for nuclear plants to withstand long-term power outages such as the one that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Many of the recommendations will take years to fully implement, Jaczko said, but there is no reason the panel cannot act on the report quickly.

Commissioner Kristine Svinicki agreed, but said the commission must “strike the appropriate balance between urgency and moving forward, and also being thoughtful and getting it right.”

Some of the changes recommended by the task force could add millions in costs for nuclear operators such as Illinois-based Exelon Corp., Louisiana-based Entergy and Georgia-based Southern Co.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, has said the NRC should seek detailed comments from plant operators and other groups before acting on the task force report.

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Online:

NRC task force report: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1119/ML11194A079.pdf

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