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Senator Threatens to Sue Nuclear Agency Over Withheld Documents

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Evening sets on the San Onofre atomic power plant in northern San Diego County, south of San Clemente, Calif., in 2004. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is threatening to sue the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the withholding of information regarding the now-shuttered facility. Evening sets on the San Onofre atomic power plant in northern San Diego County, south of San Clemente, Calif., in 2004. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is threatening to sue the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the withholding of information regarding the now-shuttered facility. (David McNew/Getty Images)

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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