Senator Barbara Boxer is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Yesterday, she provided an example of the way that committee chairmen can abuse their power, ignore rules, and tread in areas where they have no knowledge or understanding.
Fortunately, the existing members of the NRC are reasonably strong individuals who politely attempted to answer Boxer’s demanding questions, when she gave them a chance. However, the Senator’s behavior needs to be called out and discussed. It’s obvious that Senator Boxer has a need for attention, the below video was created by clipping together her opening address and each one of her question periods during a hearing that lasted less than two hours. I apologize for the length, but Boxer captured 37 minutes for her soapbox.
If this behavior is not exposed and moderated, there is a substantial threat to the independence of an important regulatory body. This is an area where limelight-seeking elected officials need to understand that they have no useful knowledge and should be extremely reluctant to interfere with the independent decision-making process.
There are a few specifics that should be highlighted.
1. Senator Boxer spent a lot of time criticizing the Commissioners because they were not moving faster to review numerous exemption requests filed by the San Onofre licensee. Her staff is not doing its job. They should explain to the Senator that if she wants to make sure that San Onofre’s existing evacuation plan remains in place, the most effective way to obtain her goal is to do everything in her power to delay and discourage the Commission from reviewing the exemption request. Until that request has been reviewed and selectively approved, all existing requirements remain in place.
2. Senator Boxer made a big deal about the fact that the NRC has never “denied” an exemption request and mischaracterized requests for exemptions to existing prescriptive rules as requests for exemptions from “safety.” The Senator needs to understand that asking for exemptions is an arduous and expensive process with the applicant charged $274 per professional staff hour for the review. This is an extra regulatory “service” that is not included in the basic annual licensing fee. That means that licensees do not waste their own time and the NRC’s time by filing frivolous requests. They do an awful lot of homework before initiating a submission and often have that homework reviewed and corrected before it is submitted. It should be no surprise when, after careful staff review, the final product is approved.
3. The Senator has mischaracterized the possibility of an event at a spent fuel pool. To be fair to her, the Commissioners did not do a great job of answering the question, perhaps because they, like many technologists, are exceedingly reluctant to use the word “impossible” even when it is the only accurate word available. The words that Senator Boxer kept trying to claim came directly from NRC studies or Chairman Macfarlane’s 2003 paper were conditioned on an overheating event occurring in the first place.
Modern analysis shows that used nuclear fuel in approved storage racks will not overheat even if the spent fuel pool is completely empty as long as none of the fuel in the pool has been in a critical reactor within the last 90 days or so. After that amount of time out of a reactor, enough of the short lived fission products have decayed that the decay heat generation rate can be handled with simple air circulation. Since San Onofre was shut down for good in January 2012, there is zero risk of any kind of overheating event in its spent fuel pools. It is impossible for anything to happen to that fuel that would result in the need to evacuate anyone who is not on the reactor site itself.
There are probably other points that should be made. I suspect there will be a few suggested additions.
The Hill (June 4, 2014) Senator warns Calif. nuke disaster could be worse than Chernobyl
The Hill (June 4, 2014) Boxer to Vitter: ‘When you have this gavel, you make the rules’
The Hayride (June 4, 2014) Vitter Slams Barbara Boxer For Authoritarian-Style Governance