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Boxer: NRC has dropped the ball on nuclear safety

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer lit into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday for not living up to its mission of protecting the public and the environment by acting on recommendations following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Boxer, D-Calif., wielding the Environment and Public Works Committee’s gavel for one of the last times before the GOP takes control of the Senate next month, noted at the hearing that the Fukushima catastrophe – meltdowns caused by damage from a tsunami triggered by 2011’s huge earthquake – still isn’t completely under control, and “is a warning to us that we must do more to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants here in the United States.”

Diablo Canyon Power PlantYet despite the NRC’s assurances, “the reality is that not a single one of the 12 key safety recommendations made by the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force has been implemented at nuclear reactors in this country,” Boxer said, adding the agency’s “failure to heed these experts’ warnings is especially relevant at California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant.”

“Even after learning of newly-discovered strong earthquake faults close to the power plant, the NRC has declined to act on its senior inspector’s warning that the reactor should be shut down if it did not come back into compliance with its seismic licensing requirements,” she said. “Approximately 500,000 people live and work near this power plant, and it is my responsibility and yours to protect them. The commission must make safety the highest priority.”

Among the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing was former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, who also is a former member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

Blakeslee had authored AB 1632, which required PG&E to conduct seismic hazard research of the faults near the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. PG&E just published the Coastal California Seismic Imaging Project Report two months ago, and “the results were astonishing,” Blakeslee said in his prepared testimony. The report documents the presence of a number of earthquake faults discovered after the design and construction of the plant that have been found to be larger and more dangerous than previously understood.”

“There is no getting around the fact that PG&E has consistently downplayed seismic hazards on the coast near its nuclear plants,” he said. “Especially disturbing is that during these past decades the NRC has repeatedly relaxed its seismic standards to accommodate the operation of Diablo Canyon.”

“It is time to end this hodge-podge of licensing rationalizations,” Blakeslee said. “We know a great deal more about seismic issues than we did when Diablo Canyon was licensed. It’s time for the NRC to reassess the seismic standards for the plant and submit them to a formal licensing amendment process. The thing that both PG&E and NRC fear most is a public hearing in which they would have to justify what they have done. It is also what we need most to assure seismic safety, and it is what the public deserves.”

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Boxer spars with nuclear agency on oversight

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer is sparring with the Nuclear Regulatory Committee over congressional access to the agency’s information.

Barbara BoxerBoxer, D-Calif., wrote a letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane on Tuesday, urging her to withdraw its new policy that the senator says will inhibit congressional oversight.

“As an ‘independent agency,’ the NRC is independent from the Executive Branch – not from congressional oversight,” Boxer wrote. “It is the NRC’s responsibility to keep Congress apprised of its activities, as well as to follow the law and use its authorities responsibly and in the public’s interest.”

Yet the NRC “unilaterally devised a drastic change of policy behind closed doors” without notifying her committee, and implemented it without consulting Congress or the public, Boxer wrote.

“This policy is a radical departure from previous NRC document policies and creates significant hurdles and delays that can be used to withhold information entirely from the chairs and ranking members of oversight committees,” Boxer wrote. “It also allows the NRC to broadly deny information to individual members of Congress, even when the information is related to matters affecting their home states.”

The NRC’s claims that the new policy is justified by its need to protect against public release of sensitive materials isn’t supported by case law or by Justice Department guidelines, the senator wrote.

“I call on the NRC to cease its efforts to circumvent Congress’ oversight authority and create a policy that is a model of transparency and respects Congress’ responsibility to oversee the NRC,” Boxer wrote.

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Boxer to hold nuclear safety hearing next week

U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer will convene a hearing next Thursday on Capitol Hill to discuss the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s efforts to shore up U.S. reactors’ safety following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis.

This Sunday marks one year since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan’s coast caused a massive tsunami that killed about 20,000 people and precipitated the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant – a multiple-meltdown and radiation release that was the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

The NRC announced today it’s implementing several recommendations based on lessons learned from Japan. All U.S. commercial nuclear power plants, including those under construction, must better protect post-9/11 safety equipment and get enough such equipment to support all of a site’s reactors simultaneously; they also must install better equipment to monitor water levels in spent-fuel pools. Certain boiling-water reactors also must improve their venting systems. They have until the end of 2016 to comply.

All five commissioners are scheduled to appear at Thursday’s hearing.

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Boxer speaks on Libya & nuclear safety

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer called her news conference today in San Francisco to blast Republicans’ budget cuts, but she touched on Libya and nuclear safety, too.

Boxer, D-Calif., praised the Obama Administration for working through the United Nations Security Council – and at the behest of the Arab League – to act to halt Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s promised attacks on his own populace. The international community had an obligation to react to such a crisis, she said, though that reaction “should be limited in scope,” remain an international effort, and retain the Arab League’s support.

Asked whether the President overstepped his constitutional authority by committing U.S. military forces without Congress’ approval, Boxer replied that the Senate unanimously resolved to urge the U.N. Security Council to act in protection of Libya’s civilians, including establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone. “So I did vote for this, and this is what the President did.”

Bringing it to Congress might’ve meant people such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio – who said Obama’s action was unconstitutional and has pledged to try to block any funding for military activities in Libya – could’ve debated it for weeks, she said. Kucinich is eloquent and some might agree with him, she said, but “anyone who said he (Obama) should’ve waited don’t feel the sense of urgency that many of us felt” about imminent harm to innocent Libyans.

Boxer also spoke about the “very worrisome” aftermath of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, particularly new reports that Tokyo’s drinking water might contain enough radioactive iodine to put infants at risk. It’s “a powerful wakeup call for our nation” to review our own nuclear safety, she said: The U.S. has 23 reactors of the same design as the damaged ones at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as 54 plants built before 1980. And she noted the U.S. also has two nuclear power plants sited in areas with the highest degree of seismic risk – both located in California.

About 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of the San Onofre nuclear plant in northern San Diego County, she noted, while about 500,000 live within 50 miles of the Diablo Canyon plant in San Luis Obispo County. Significant new earthquake risks have been discovered since both plants were built.

She said she doesn’t believe PG&E, which operates Diablo Canyon, should be granted the permit extension it’s seeking until it has completed new seismic safety studies.

Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the nation’s nuclear industry through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The committee already has received a briefing from the NRC and other experts, and will hold a full hearing on nuclear safety next month, she said. She said her priorities are immediate reviews of U.S. reactors with the same design as the embattled Japanese reactors; U.S. reactors in seismically active areas; and storage of spent fuel rods. “This is serious business – I’m going to be all over this issue, and Senator (Dianne) Feinstein and I are working together.”

UPDATE @ 3:25 P.M.: Boxer’s stance on Libya is at odds with at that of least several Bay Area House members. Representatives Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Mike Honda, D-San Jose; and Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, joined by Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., issued this statement yesterday:

“The decision for the United States to engage militarily in Libya is one that should have been debated and approved by Congress.

“We have serious concerns about whether or not an effective and thorough case for military intervention in Libya was made. Too many questions remain. What is our responsibility now? Do we own the situation in Libya and for how long? Where does this dramatic acceleration of military intervention end?

“There is a serious humanitarian crisis in Libya, and Gaddafi’s reckless, indiscriminate use of force on his own people in response to grassroots calls for change is unacceptable. But there are serious consequences for rushing to war with a limited understanding of the situation on the ground and no exit strategy or plan – we learned this lesson through two ill-advised wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“With the potential for protracted civil war in Libya, and similar circumstances of unrest and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Yemen, and elsewhere, we cannot afford to sidestep critical diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to rely solely upon the deployment of more guns, bombs, and troops. This represents a dangerous path toward perpetual U.S. military engagement around the world.

“The United States must immediately shift to end the bombing in Libya. Rest assured we will fight in Congress to ensure the United States does not become embroiled in yet another destabilizing military quagmire in Libya with no clear exit plan or diplomatic strategy for peace.”

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Boxer, DiFi seek inspection of Calif. nuke plants

As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman briefed the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today on the ongoing crisis at nuclear power facilities in Japan, California’s Senators urged him to ensure the Golden State’s two nuclear power plants are safe from similar natural disasters.

Diablo Canyon Power PlantCommittee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote today to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, calling on the NRC to perform a thorough inspection at the San Onofre plant – on the northern San Diego County coast – and the Diablo Canyon plant – on the coast near San Luis Obispo – both of which are near earthquake faults, to evaluate their safety and emergency preparedness. They also asked the NRC to respond to questions about plant design and operations, type of reactor, and preparedness to withstand an earthquake or tsunami.

Read the full text of the letter, after the jump…
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Boxer to hold briefing on Japan nuclear crisis

U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer announced today that she’s convening a briefing at 3:30 EST tomorrow on Capitol Hill with Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko to discuss the ongoing crisis at nuclear power facilities in Japan, as well as the potential ramifications for the United States.

The panel will also hear from Anthony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Edwin Lyman, senior scientist for global security at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Boxer, D-Calif., whose committee has oversight responsibilities on nuclear safety, also announced today that there will be a joint Full Committee and Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety oversight hearing to examine these issues in the near future.