NRC Hearings on New Reactor Licenses to Proceed, Jaczko Says

The U.S. will move ahead with the licensing process for new nuclear power plants as it reviews the safety of existing reactors after Japan’s crisis, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said.

“As early as late summer, the commission may conduct the first mandatory hearings on new reactor licenses since the 1970s,” Jaczko said today at a hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. Environmental groups sought to halt the process pending a U.S. investigation of reactor safety.

NRC inspectors are examining whether existing U.S. reactors can withstand flooding, earthquakes and the loss of electricity from both the grid and emergency generators, Jaczko said.

The nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors are getting closer scrutiny from U.S. regulators and lawmakers after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered partial meltdowns at a nuclear plant in Japan. At today’s hearing, lawmakers also pressed Jaczko over his role in blocking a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada for spent reactor fuel.

The natural disaster in Japan destroyed power lines and flooded diesel generators at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, shutting down its cooling systems. Fuel rods in four of the six reactor buildings overheated, causing fires, explosions and radiation leaks in the world’s worst nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

The NRC started a 90-day safety review of U.S. reactors after backup power failed at Fukushima, about 135 miles (217 kilometers) north of Tokyo.

Environmental Petition

Environmental groups sent a petition to the NRC on April 14 seeking a suspension of the U.S. licensing process until an independent committee examines the lessons of the catastrophe in Japan. The Nuclear Energy Institute said no such delay was necessary.

While the NRC has “confidence in the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants,” the industry’s record needs improvement, Jaczko said today.

The number of automatic “scrams,” or sudden shutdowns, in 2010 increased for a second straight year, and three nuclear plants are “subject to increased NRC inspection oversight because of performance deficiencies,” he said. The plants are Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, Robinson in South Carolina and Wolf Creek in Kansas, according to the NRC’s website.

The Japan crisis may lead regulators to require that U.S. nuclear plants be better prepared for a “station blackout,” when cooling systems are severed from the power grid and backup diesel generators fail, Jaczko said April 28 during a meeting at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. The NRC will study expanding evacuation zones around U.S. plants to 50 miles from 10 miles, Jaczko said April 12.

Fukushima Evacuation

The U.S. State Department in March recommended the evacuation of Americans living within 50 miles of the Fukushima plan based on consultations with the NRC. Jaczko provided the advice on his own, William Ostendorff told reporters after today’s hearing.

“That recommendation strictly was made by the chairman himself without engaging myself or other commissioners,” Ostendorff said.

Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers today criticized Jaczko’s decision in October to halt a review of a proposed federal nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Jaczko’s instruction to NRC staff was based on President Barack Obama’s budget request last year, which eliminated funds for the project. Obama also appointed a panel to study alternatives for handling spent reactor fuel.

Republican lawmakers have said Jaczko lacked authority to end the review. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said March 31 his panel is investigating the NRC’s handling of Yucca Mountain.

‘Scratch The Surface’

The energy panel’s investigation is “just starting to scratch the surface,” Upton said today. “We are going to pursue this,” he said.

Last year, the NRC’s independent Atomic Safety and Licensing Board said the administration had no power to end the project, authorized by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This means Jaczko acted “politically” to block the NRC’s review of the planned nuclear waste dump, which is “most concerning,” said Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat.

Before he was appointed in 2005, Jaczko worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and a vocal opponent of the Yucca Mountain project.

Halting the review of a proposed waste site was legally justified and “in no way a political action,” Jaczko said today. The “close out” of the NRC’s Yucca Mountain review should be completed by Sept. 30, Jaczko said.

Ostendorff told the committee he disagreed with Jaczko’s decision to halt the agency’s work on the repository.

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