Yesterday, I posted a video clip showing Barbara Boxer berating the five NRC commissioners for 36 minutes during a hearing that lasted a little less than 2 hours. She used her gavel and power over the committee to dominate the session. The only mention she made of time was when she turned to the time keeper and demanded an extra “ten seconds,” ostensibly to make up for time that she lost when she was interrupted by Senator Vitter, who was concerned about the way that she was demanding a “yes, no or I don’t know” answer.
Over the years, I have watched a number of congressional and senate oversight hearings. I cannot remember a single instance in which the committee chairman completely ignored the clock in such a selfish manner.
There was another example during the same hearing of how unfairly Ms. Boxer abuses her chairman power. Ed Markey is a reliable ally for Boxer. Markey is the most junior member of the Senate, having only been seated in June 2013, after winning a special election to replace John F. Kerry in an event with a very low voter turnout. However, when he entered the committee room after the hearing started, Boxer asked him to take the seat next to her. She then proceeded to give him the floor for his opportunity to question the commissioners.
In every hearing I have ever watched, each Senator or Congressman is allotted 5 minutes and that time is kept pretty tightly.
However, this video clip is 16 minutes long and there was never an interruption to remind Mr. Markey that his time had expired.
To answer the points he made:
1. Used fuel pools at U. S. reactor plants are safe. They are are not “dangerously overcrowded.” The pools were built with strict quality assurance requirements and meet stringent seismic standards. Even if the earthquake predictions for a particular area are revised, that does not mean that the pools are vulnerable since they were built with large margins. All of the used fuel pools at Fukushima survived without structural damage, despite being subjected to an enormous earthquake, a large tsunami and a sustained loss of electrical power for the circulating pumps.
2. Dry cask storage is safe. It is not possible for casks to be “safer” than already safe used fuel pools. There are times when it is advantageous for a nuclear plant operator to use dry casks and times when it is advantageous to use wet pool storage. It is not the regulator’s job to determine which safe means of storing fuel a plant owner should use, though the regulator is empowered to review plans and ensure continued compliance with existing safety regulations.
3. A study conducted by Brookhaven National Laboratory under contract to the NRC for regulatory information support shows that spent fuel pools that contain only fuel that has been out of a reactor for more than 17 months can safely hold used fuel even if all of the water is drained by any one of several postulated — but far-fetched — initiating events. Recent NRC analysis indicates that the 17 month critical decay time used in previous studies is quite conservative and that it is more likely to be just a few months. (Note: the 17 months is for PWR fuel, it is 7 months for BWR fuel.)
4. In his response to Markey, Commissioner Apostalakis mentioned questions and commentary submitted by Gordon Thompson that were rebutted by a distinguished member of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).
See enclosure 3 of ACRS letter of 20 November 2013 to Ms. Diane Curran.
5. I’m not sure exactly which document Markey was quoting when he kept saying that it was the NRC’s conclusion that the consequences of used pool fires would be significant.
6. Contrary to Markey’s assertion, the longer that decommissioned plants sit there with spent fuel rods in place, the safer those spent fuel rods become. They get cooler and produce less decay heat with every passing minute that increases the interval since they were last used in an operating reactor.
7. Markey made a big deal about the fact that there have been no “new standards” put into place since Fukushima and implied that we know something really bad can happen as a result of that event. He fails to recognize that there were already different standards in place in the US that would have prevented the kind of damage suffered at Fukushima as long as they continue to be enforced. That is the focus of the NRC’s actions, along with additional measures like the nuclear industry’s FLEX program that are not based on new standards, but based on sensible preventive actions that can reduce damage. The industry has a huge incentive to invest in damage prevention and has done so with due haste and analysis.
It must be said that Chairman Macfarlane did an admirable job in answering difficult questions from both Senator Markey and Senator Boxer. Her performance during the hearing and the comments about her leadership from the other commissioners indicate that I may have been wrong to question her management skills at the time of her nomination to her position.