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Law to Limit NRC Head’s Actions in an Emergency Not Needed, Macfarlane Tells House Panel

Dec. 16, 2013—Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane told a U.S. House committee Dec. 12 she opposes proposed legislation that would limit the authority of the agency’s chief during an emergency.

Macfarlane said no change is needed in the NRC’s emergency response mechanisms, objecting especially to a proposed requirement that the head of the agency alert the other commissioners within 24 hours of a nuclear emergency and that the NRC post a press release on its website before taking action.

All five NRC commissioners were testifying before the subcommittees on energy and power and environment and the economy.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who introduced the legislation (H.R. 3132), said at the hearing that the law that created the NRC and established its governance was overdue for revision. He said the actions of previous NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident motivated the legislation.

Terry said Jaczko’s decision to act without consulting the other commissioners showed weakness in the rules governing the chairman’s authority. “There was a breach of public confidence in the NRC,” Terry said, referring to what he called “holes in the procedures” guiding the commission.

Macfarlane rejected this characterization, saying repeatedly that no changes in the procedures are needed. She said that in an emergency “time is of the essence” and that she would “keep colleagues informed to the best of my ability.” The other commissioners largely agreed with Macfarlane, though Commissioner William Magwood said he was uncertain at the time whether an emergency had been declared after the accident in Japan.

The issue found both defenders and critics among the legislators. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) said that he was concerned “about an imperial chair” at the NRC, while Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called it a “bad bill” that undermines the chairman’s authority when it is most needed. “We don’t need a bureaucracy, we need a decisive leader,” he said.

The panel also engaged in some discussion on the shuttered project to establish a repository for used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Macfarlane deflected most questions about the program, saying issues pending before the commission bar more lengthy responses.

She said the commission will comply with the Aug. 13 federal court order to resume the agency’s review of the Department of Energy’s license application for the project, but she declined to say whether the NRC will ask Congress for supplemental funds to do the work because budget issues have not been fully approved by the commission.

In September, 80 House members, including many from the Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Macfarlane urging the commission to “act as good stewards of the funds already appropriated and accomplish as much as possible” toward finishing at least the NRC’s safety evaluation report on the license application.

The commission on Nov. 18 directed NRC staff to complete the report.

Macfarlane said that the agency is arranging its resources to handle the license review. Commissioner George Apostolakis added that the staff is developing a new schedule for completing the review.

A Nov. 21 letter to Macfarlane from subcommittee Chairmen Ed Whitfield (R-Kan.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.) raised issues about the Yucca program but also included much broader criticism of the efficiency of the NRC’s decision-making processes. They said the agency’s focus on numerous activities—including “lower priority issues” based on lessons from the Fukushima accident—may have led to an “apparent disconnect between improving industry safety trends, the decline in agency workload, and the decline in the timeliness of reviews.” Whitfield reiterated this point at the hearing.

The letter says, “Of the new plant license applications currently under review, six will have been pending for seven years or longer before being issued.”

The commissioners did not directly address the issue of long review periods for combined operating licenses and early site permits. But Macfarlane countered the chairmen’s view that “the agency’s workload is decreasing” or that its budget has increased significantly. In constant dollars, Macfarlane said, the NRC’s budget has declined since 2007.

She said that even though a number of license applications have been withdrawn from consideration, other work—such as the Yucca Mountain license application, responses to the Fukushima accident and the redrafting of the waste confidence rule—have increased the agency’s workload considerably.

The commissioners also addressed the cumulative impact of regulations. Macfarlane noted the commission’s positive response to an industry proposal to adjust implementation schedules “when justified.” Apostolakis said the issue exposes the danger of “focusing on just one area of safety.” He said the regulations responding to Fukushima, for example, ignore other issues, such as fire protection.