NRC Chief Defends Regulator After Criticism of Fukushima Rules

Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a month, defended the agency while meeting with critics who faulted decisions they said favor operators and are based on indecipherable documents.

The safety agency is aligned with the nuclear industry to an “astonishing” degree and uses a decision-making process that’s impossible for the public to follow, Christopher Paine, the nuclear program director at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said today during the meeting at the commission’s Rockville, Maryland headquarters. The response to Japan’s Fukushima disaster so far is consistent with the NRC’s “penchant for churning paper,” he said.

“I do share your concern about making NRC documents more accessible and transparent,” Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane, sworn in on July 9, led the five-member commission through a review of the response to the 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, causing explosions, radiation leaks and meltdowns.

The Fukushima-related rules imposed on 104 commercial U.S. reactors a year after the incident require companies such as Exelon Corp. and Entergy Corp. to have a plan for plants to indefinitely survive power blackouts. Reactor owners also must have adequate instruments to monitor pools used to keep spent fuel cool. Reactors with General Electric Co.-designed containment structures similar to those that failed at Fukushima require sturdier venting systems to prevent damage.

‘Staffing Challenges’

Too much focus on recommendations related to the Japanese accident could divert plant owners’ attention from events with a higher probability of occurring and create “staffing challenges,” Casey Pfeiffer, the president of Professional Reactor Operator Society, told the commission.

Macfarlane questioned whether hiring additional staff in response to the rules is an industry concern. Jim Scarola, co-chairman of the Industry Fukushima Response Steering Committee, said employees will be added where appropriate.

Macfarlane and Commissioner George Apostolakis also asked about the industry’s plan to keep additional safety equipment at plant sites and in off-site storage areas, saying companies haven’t demonstrated gear can be deployed in the event of a hurricane, a flood or a fire.

“I’m not convinced, I’m sorry,” Apostolakis said.

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