U.S. nuclear chief urges rapid overhaul of rules

WASHINGTON Mon Jul 18, 2011 4:13pm EDT

Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Gregory Jaczko attends a news conference during the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna in Vienna June 21, 2011. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Gregory Jaczko attends a news conference during the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna in Vienna June 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Herwig Prammer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. nuclear chief wants to push ahead with sweeping regulatory changes for nuclear safety, cutting through the exhaustive technical reviews that typically make for more lengthy deliberations at his agency.

Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said on Monday he wants the NRC to provide clear direction on changes warranted by Japan's Fukushima Daiichi within 90 days, and for the regulator and the industry to have changes implemented within five years.

That would be about half the time that the NRC and industry took to boost security after the September 11 attacks, which was the last time the agency dealt with major changes to its rules.

"The Commission may need to do things differently than it normally does. That should not be unexpected, since these are not normal times for the NRC or for our licensees," Jaczko said in a speech to the National Press Club.

After the Fukushima plant was overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami in March, causing the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, the U.S. NRC moved quickly to evaluate whether its fleet of 104 reactors needed to make changes.

The report is being closely watched by nuclear operators like Exelon, Entergy, and PG&E.

A task force of senior staff members said last week there were no imminent safety risks at U.S. plants, but urged an overhaul of rules which could force plants to plan for catastrophes beyond what they were designed to withstand.

STEP ONE: CONVINCE COMMISSION

Jaczko has proposed a series of public meetings for the five-member commission to guide its near-term decisions.

"I believe that is more than enough time for the Commission to outline a clear path forward," he said.

But first, Jaczko will need to convince a majority of the other appointed commissioners to agree to the timetable.

The commissioners have not yet spoken publicly about their opinions of the task force report, but are slated to discuss the issues at a public hearing on Tuesday.

"We're not convinced the full commission will agree" with the most significant shifts recommended, said Christine Tezak, an energy policy analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co, in a note to clients on Monday.

Asked whether he has the support he needs, Jaczko told the Press Club: "Well, we'll see."

Jaczko also warned that unless the regulator takes quick action in 90 days, it will not "be appropriate" to evaluate applications for new reactors proposed by Southern and SCANA -- decisions that had been scheduled to be made in 2011.

"We have to understand what they will mean for new reactor licenses. If we want to keep that moving forward at reasonable pace we have to first come to some decision and resolution with these recommendations," he said.

INDUSTRY WARNS MORE INPUT NEEDED

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobby group, urged the regulator to get more information from Japan and to seek input from the industry before moving ahead.

"The task force report lacks the rigorous analysis of issues that traditionally accompanies regulatory requirements proposed by the NRC," said Marvin Fertel, president of the group, in a July 15 letter to Jaczko.

If the NRC adopts all the recommendations, that could lead to more than $1 billion in new costs for the nuclear plants, estimated Nathan Ives, senior manager with Ernst & Young's Power & Utilities advisory practice.

But those costs would be unlikely to force any plants to shut down, said Ives, who formerly worked with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operation, the industry's self-regulatory body.

Republicans also warned the NRC to step carefully.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee said it is worried "regular NRC procedures for full and deliberate review may be circumvented, depriving the commission of the full information necessary to properly do its work."

(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid and Marguerita Choy)

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