WASHINGTON -- Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane is denying claims that her organization is withholding information related to a now-defunct nuclear power plant that lawmakers and watchdog groups feared was a security risk.
At the onset of an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that NRC personnel this week attempted to restrict her staff's access to records pertaining to the San Onofre nuclear power plant in her home state.
The plant's operator, Southern California Edison, announced it would close the facility earlier this year after Boxer raised concerns about damaged steam generators that activists said made the site vulnerable to sabotage.
Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said NRC officials "even told [her] staff that they could be searched to ensure they had not taken any documents" in the course of doing work related to the senator's San Onofre investigation earlier this week.
According to Boxer, the incident was an outgrowth of a "unilateral and disturbing change" that the commission made recently to "its policies on providing information to Congress." The change, the lawmaker said, "allows the NRC to broadly deny information to individual members of Congress."
The five presidentially appointed commissioners did not get an opportunity during Thursday's hearing to respond to Boxer's charges, as the session abruptly adjourned due to unrelated action on the Senate floor.
Macfarlane denied the claims in a brief exchange with reporters after the hearing, however.
"We would never say such a thing," Macfarlane said in reference to Boxer's claims that NRC personnel threatened to search the senator's staff. The NRC chairwoman attributed the accusations to a "general misunderstanding" regarding the commission's new policy for providing information to Congress.
Macfarlane suggested that the only aspect of the new policy worth noting was that members of Capitol Hill committees with NRC oversight authority must now direct requests for information through either the congressional committee chair or its top-ranking minority member.
She said a Justice Department review of the policy found it to be among the least restrictive across the federal government. That would directly contradict a claim made by Boxer, who said an NRC poll of federal agencies determined that the policy was more restrictive than that of any other agency.
The NRC chairwoman declined to discuss the nature of the documents that the California senator had sought relative to the San Onofre plant.
Boxer indicated during the hearing that she would continue to pursue the issue.
"Let me be clear: No form of agency intimidation or obstruction will be tolerated in this committee's investigation or its constitutional oversight responsibilities," she said.