US NRC procedures impede congressional fact-finding: senator

Washington (Platts)--21Nov2013/214 pm EST/1914 GMT


New internal commission procedures adopted in September by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission are impeding congressional oversight and fact-finding, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat-California, said during a hearing Thursday.

Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which oversees NRC, said in her opening statement that the agency "has recently made a unilateral and disturbing change to its policies on providing information to Congress."

"The NRC's previous policy provided documents to members of Congress serving on committees with NRC oversight authority and to members requesting information about nuclear facilities in their states or districts," she said. "Without notifying the EPW committee and -- I believe acting outside of the NRC's authority -- the commission issued a new policy with substantial hurdles and delays that could even be used to withhold information entirely from the chairs and ranking members of oversight committees."

Boxer said "[t]he new policy allows the NRC to broadly deny information to individual members of Congress, even when the information is related to matters affecting their home states."

Boxer pointed to her ongoing investigation of the closed San Onofre nuclear power plant in California as an example of the importance of congressional oversight.

"Just this week, NRC personnel attempted to restrict my staff's review of records that I had requested related to the ongoing San Onofre investigation and even told my staff that they could be searched to ensure they had not taken any documents," she said.

"Let me be clear -- no form of agency intimidation or obstruction will be tolerated in this committee's investigation or its constitutional oversight responsibilities," Boxer said.

"Action will be taken if you do not reverse your policy," she said without elaborating.

Boxer also objected to the heavy foreign travel schedule of some commissioners, saying that it has impeded oversight hearings, and that she will request a full accounting of commissioners' foreign travel.

Boxer did not mention any commissioners by name.

The hearing was adjourned due to Senate floor action before any witnesses, including NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, could testify. A committee staffer said the hearing will be rescheduled after the Thanksgiving holiday recess.

Macfarlane told reporters after the hearing that the changes in the commission's internal procedures have not and will not affect the ability of Congress to get information from the agency and oversee NRC.

"We've heard the concerns of the chairman, and I think in general there's a misunderstanding," Macfarlane said. "There aren't terribly significant changes."

Macfarlane described the changes as only affecting "sensitive documents," which she said represent "very few" of the documents requested by congressional staff.

"We are very aware of our obligation to be responsive to our oversight committees and to Congress in general," she said. "Nothing's changed in regards to our providing documents and information to Congress."

Macfarlane denied NRC staff had threatened to search congressional staffers.

"We would never say such a thing," she said.

Macfarlane disagreed with Boxer's characterization of NRC's survey, saying the survey concluded the agency's revised policy was "less restrictive" than that of many other federal agencies.

NRC will work with Boxer to address her concerns, Macfarlane said. She declined comment on whether the documents in question related to the San Onofre plant.

--Steven Dolley, steven.dolley@platts.com --Edited by Annie Siebert, ann.siebert@platts.com