Statement of Senator Barbara Boxer
Oversight Hearing: NRC's Implementation of the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force Recommendations and other Actions to Enhance and Maintain Nuclear Safety
January 30, 2014

Today, the Environment and Public Works Committee is holding its eighth oversight hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Japan.

The third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster is fast approaching, and Japan is still struggling with the consequences.

Failed efforts to prevent radioactive water from washing into the sea have led officials to build a huge underground ice wall.

And it will be at least 3 more years before 60,000 local residents can safely return to their homes.

We must learn from the tragic events in Fukushima and take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States.

More than two years ago, the NRC charged its most senior nuclear safety officials with making recommendations to help prevent a similar disaster at facilities in the United States.

Some of the 12 recommendations that NRC's Task Force proposed have been acted on. The NRC has issued orders to enhance safety when plants lose electrical power and to increase the reliability of venting systems to prevent explosions.

Other measures to enhance nuclear safety have not moved forward as quickly as they should have. For example, the NRC has allowed three full years for seismic evaluations of nuclear reactors in the Western United States to be completed. If a seismic evaluation finds that there is a seismic risk, the NRC provides an additional three years for yet more analysis.

This is an unacceptable delay -- earthquakes will not wait until after the paperwork has been completed. When the NRC is made aware of new seismic risks, as it was for the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility near San Luis Obispo, it should require immediate steps to be taken to protect the people who live and work near these facilities.

It is the responsibility of this Committee to conduct oversight of the NRC to ensure the adequacy of its response to Fukushima and other nuclear safety matters.

However, our ability to conduct oversight is being impeded by a lack of cooperation by the NRC.

During my investigation of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California, I learned that NRC's General Counsel directed NRC staff to withhold documents that I requested.

My investigation related to why flawed equipment was installed at San Onofre is important because we do not yet have all the answers as to how that disastrous situation occurred. NRC's investigation is also continuing. In addition, it will provide lessons-learned for the Commission's future safety decision-making activities.

The NRC's response to my investigation is not the only recent example of the agency's efforts to avoid Congressional oversight.

Last fall, the NRC attempted to unilaterally change its policy on providing information to Congress from one that generally made non-public documents available, to one that did not. The new policy even added restrictions that could have been used to withhold information from Chairs and Ranking Members of oversight committees.

Congress unambiguously rejected this new policy when it rescinded it in the Appropriations bill that was recently enacted.

NRC has not responded my document requests in a manner that is consistent with Congressional direction.

In recent letters to me, the NRC cites non-specific Constitutional separation of powers as a basis for continuing to withhold documents from this Committee. However, there is simply no Constitutional basis that is applicable to the documents in question.

Finally, I note that excessive travel by NRC Commissioners raises many issues, including making it very difficult to schedule oversight hearings. I am also mystified as to why the travel records provided to me are marked "non-public". I plan to ask questions about the lack of transparency and scheduling of your travels.

During a period where reactors are closing unexpectedly due to adverse safety or economic conditions, the NRC's role as a strong safety regulator has never been more important. However, I am concerned that whistleblowers who have raised safety and other concerns within the NRC have been ignored.

I look forward to discussing these and many other issues with you today.