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NRC unites on safety, but rift remains

Members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) testified regarding new safety rules during a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday, presenting a united front despite ongoing divisions over controversial issues such as nuclear waste.

One of the rules, released this week in response to Fukushima, would require reactors to install monitoring equipment in pools that store used fuel rods, ensuring that companies are able to determine water levels during emergencies. A second would increase the requirements for venting systems at reactors similar to those at Fukushima (around a quarter of the 103 operating nuclear reactors in the United States). Both rules  directly target problems experienced at Fukushima, where operators found themselves blind to what was happening inside the spent-fuel pools and unable to prevent explosions within the containment vessels.

A third rule would increase the minimum requirements for safety equipment at US nuclear sites with more than one reactor. Despite initial questions over how to proceed with the safety review, all three rules appear to have broad support. But that did not prevent brief fireworks on Thursday.

The hearing had barely begun when Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions decided to go through dirty laundry. Chairman Gregory Jaczko and the rest of the commission have knocked heads over various matters, including a legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s decision to shut down the nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Appointed by Obama, Jaczko supported the decision but did not have enough votes to garner a ruling to that effect (for background, see Yucca Mountain is dead, long live Yucca Mountain).

Citing a letter that surfaced last December in which all four of his fellow commissioners criticized Chairman Jaczko, Sessions demanded that Obama reappoint commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a prior Republican appointee, when her term expires in the coming months. He said that it would be a “travesty” if Svinicki were ousted in lieu of Jaczko himself. “I’m not going to let that happen,” Sessions said, “even if we have to bring the Senate to a grinding halt.”

After an awkward pause, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper sounded his own support for Svinicki, and the committee then turned back to safety. In addition to the new rules, commissioners outlined work on a series of additional measures, including new seismic reviews. For background, check our earlier coverage (NRC task force proposes new safety guidelines for nukes) as well as the NRC site here and here.

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