U.S. nuclear regulator tied up by process: chairman

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 10, 2011 4:27pm EDT

Related Topics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. nuclear regulator said his own commission is hamstrung by an inefficient, "flawed voting system" which distracts from its job of ensuring safety at the country's power plants.

Gregory Jaczko chided his colleagues on the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission for their approach to recommended changes in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster -- an approach he said reflects "the current commission's preoccupation with process at the expense of nuclear safety policy."

The focus "is a result of a flawed voting system that encourages the commission to sidestep the actual substantive policy issues presented, and this current situation is just one more example," Jaczko said.

An NRC task force recommended an overhaul of the way the NRC requires the nation's 104 reactors to be prepared for disasters like earthquakes and floods, and could add millions in costs for operations like Exelon, Entergy and PG&E.

Jaczko had publicly pushed for expedited decisions on the recommendation, but the four other NRC commissioners said they first wanted top operations staff to develop a plan of attack for evaluating the recommendations and gathering input from the public and industry.

In his formal vote on the issue dated August 9 and posted to the NRC's website on Wednesday, Jaczko said he would agree to his colleagues' request as long as the staff plan is complete within 45 days of the task force release, which was July 12.

Jaczko also said he wants commissioners to vote on the merit of each task force recommendation by October and for changes to be implemented within five years -- an expedited schedule.

Now that Jaczko has voted, the NRC's secretariat will synthesize votes into a consensus position, after which the commissioners must vote again to affirm the direction.

STATUS QUO NOT GOOD ENOUGH-JACZKO

After an earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant in March, causing the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, the NRC ordered a group of senior staff to examine whether U.S. regulations need change.

"I believe the task force found that the status quo of our existing regulatory framework is no longer acceptable," Jaczko said in his vote.

Decisions on the new safety recommendations will be the NRC's most significant task since 1979, when a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania melted down, Jaczko said, noting the agency is also on the cusp of approving licenses for new nuclear plants, something it hasn't done for more than 30 years.

"The commission is reacting to a real accident at a plant with a design similar to designs licensed and built in the United States," Jaczko said.

Some recommendations will take longer to adopt than others, Jaczko said, such as the first suggestion to come up with a better regulatory framework than the current "patchwork" of rules and guidelines.

But other ideas can be adopted promptly, Jaczko said, such as taking a critical look at requirements for plants to withstand earthquakes and floods, and keep cool even during a long-term power blackout.

The task force said there is no imminent risk that a disaster similar to Fukushima could occur in the United States, home to the world's largest nuclear power industry.

Jaczko chastised his colleagues for accepting that finding "without question."

"Clearly the commission must be willing to challenge this task force's finding just as vigorously as the safety recommendations themselves, even if the commission agrees with it in the end," Jaczko said.

(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)

FILED UNDER:
Photo

California's historic drought

With reservoirs at record lows, California is in the midst of the worst drought in decades.  Slideshow