Senator Threatens to Sue Nuclear Agency Over Withheld Documents

Barbara Boxer (D-CA) chairs a meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 14, 2009.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
Jan. 30, 2014, 10:03 a.m.

Sen­at­or Bar­bara Box­er (D-Cal­if.) is threat­en­ing to sue the U.S. Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion for with­hold­ing in­form­a­tion re­lated to a now-de­funct nuc­le­ar power plant that law­makers and watch­dog groups feared was a se­cur­ity risk.

South­ern Cali­for­nia Edis­on de­cided last year to per­man­ently close the San Ono­fre nuc­le­ar power plant in Box­er’s home state after the sen­at­or raised con­cerns about dam­aged steam gen­er­at­ors that act­iv­ists said made the site vul­ner­able to sab­ot­age. The law­maker has de­man­ded to get to the bot­tom of how de­fect­ive tech­no­lo­gies were per­mit­ted to be fielded from the out­set.

NRC Chair­wo­man Al­lis­on Mac­far­lane in Novem­ber denied Box­er’s claims that the agency was with­hold­ing in­form­a­tion from the law­maker. But Box­er pushed back dur­ing a Thursday hear­ing, say­ing the com­mis­sion had yet to provide all the doc­u­ments she re­ques­ted.

“Maybe we have to go to court, maybe we have to sue you,” Box­er told Mac­far­lane and the four oth­er pres­id­en­tially ap­poin­ted com­mis­sion­ers. “I will get this in­form­a­tion even if I have to go to whis­tleblowers.”

Box­er chas­tised the com­mis­sion­ers, say­ing NRC of­fi­cials had said “very sweetly” that they would provide all the in­form­a­tion she re­ques­ted, and then later presen­ted a “phony leg­al ar­gu­ment” claim­ing they were not re­quired to do so.

The con­cern re­gard­ing the plant in­volved re­place­ment steam gen­er­at­ors — a key part of re­act­ors’ cool­ing sys­tems — that had been in­stalled at the San Ono­fre plant. A tube in one San Ono­fre re­act­or’s re­place­ment steam gen­er­at­or had burst, while an­oth­er was found to have hun­dreds of dam­aged tubes.

Act­iv­ists ar­gued that these flaws would make it easi­er for a ter­ror­ist to sab­ot­age the plant and cause a melt­down, par­tic­u­larly if an at­tack res­ul­ted in break­ing the re­act­or’s main steam line.

Box­er, who chairs the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee, said “we do not yet have all the an­swers to how that dis­astrous situ­ation [at the San Ono­fre plant] oc­curred.” She said it was un­clear why NRC of­fi­cials per­mit­ted the flawed equip­ment to be in­stalled in the first place and that the in­form­a­tion she was seek­ing “will provide les­sons-learned for the com­mis­sion’s fu­ture safety de­cision-mak­ing activ­it­ies.”

Ac­cord­ing to the sen­at­or, the com­mis­sion in­tro­duced a new policy lim­it­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of non-pub­lic in­form­a­tion to mem­bers of Con­gress last year, prompt­ing law­makers to over­turn the policy as part of ap­pro­pri­ations le­gis­la­tion ap­proved this month.

Box­er slammed the fed­er­al com­mis­sion for not act­ing in a trans­par­ent man­ner gen­er­ally, and com­plained that the agency also was not re­leas­ing in­form­a­tion per­tain­ing to how it jus­ti­fies its travel budget. She ex­pressed sup­port for NRC of­fi­cials vis­it­ing cer­tain des­tin­a­tions — such as Ja­pan, the site of the 2011 Fukushi­ma dis­aster.

However, oth­er des­tin­a­tions to which NRC of­fi­cials had traveled “look fun to go to,” but it is un­clear why they were ne­ces­sary, she said.

Box­er said she would con­tin­ue to press the is­sue at an­oth­er hear­ing “real soon.” In the next ses­sion, she prom­ised also to grill the com­mis­sion­ers re­gard­ing their de­cision to con­duct cost-be­ne­fit ana­lyses of vari­ous ac­tions NRC staff had re­com­men­ded that the U.S. in­dustry be re­quired to take to en­sure their fa­cil­it­ies don’t ex­per­i­ence a Fukushi­ma-type dis­aster.

The Cali­for­nia sen­at­or ar­gued the ana­lyses were un­ne­ces­sary, and that the wide scope of the dev­ast­a­tion the Fukushi­ma in­cid­ent caused in Ja­pan had provided enough jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the pre­vent­at­ive meas­ures to be taken at U.S. fa­cil­it­ies. She said the NRC stud­ies had caused the agency to fall be­hind sched­ule in terms of im­ple­ment­ing the re­com­mend­a­tions.

In some cases, the com­mis­sion has op­ted not to make cer­tain re­quire­ments of the power in­dustry on the grounds that the prob­ab­il­ity of events oc­cur­ing that would re­quire such pro­tec­tions was low.

However, Box­er said it would be im­prop­er for the agency to de­cide against im­ple­ment­ing the re­com­mend­a­tions on such a basis. She said the 2001 at­tacks on New York and Wash­ing­ton, along with re­cent cata­stroph­ic weath­er events, had shown that the un­ex­pec­ted can oc­cur.

“You can all say it will nev­er hap­pen here but “¦ we are just not that power­ful,” Box­er said. “We’re humble.”

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