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Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko speaks to packed house at Public Citizen

With a topic as hot as nuclear power, it wasn’t hard to pack the house this week for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who came Monday to speak as part of Public Citizen’s 40th anniversary speaker series. Every chair in the room was filled, and more than a dozen representatives from the media were on hand with notebooks, cameras and laptops.

Jaczko’s opening remarks were vague and overarching – he discussed how he thinks transparency is important, for instance. But he fielded some tough questions and did eventually get into some specifics.

For instance, he noted that in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, the agency is conducting two reviews of the existing fleet of U.S. reactors. According to the Chairman’s memorandum to the task force undertaking the review, the 90-day review, will examine issues “affecting domestic operating reactors of all designs” in areas that include “protection against earthquake tsunami, flooding, hurricanes, station blackout and a degraded ability to restore power, severe accident mitigation, emergency preparedness and combustible gas control.”

The other is a more comprehensive, six-month, “lessons learned” review  that will begin as soon as the NRC has sufficient technical information from the events in Japan. In that one, Jaczko directs the agency to “evaluate all technical and policy issues related to the event to identify additional research, generic issues, changes to the reactor oversight process, rulemakings, and adjustments to the regulatory framework that should be conducted by the NRC.”

It is important to note that unlike the moratorium on offshore drilling set in place during the BP oil crisis, reactor licensing and re-licensing activity has not been suspended even with the agency’s acknowledgment that the regulations that govern these activities are likely to change significantly once the lessons from Fukushima are fully realized.

But before we learn, let’s review what we already know.

It appears that the Fukushima nuclear accident has thrust the question of nuclear reactor safety back into public debate.  Radioactive nuclear waste and the astronomical cost of nuclear power have long served as the context in which nuclear power is challenged in the public arena – unless you live near a plant or work on nuclear issues.  If you do fall into one of these camps, you know that the question of nuclear safety has in fact been here all along.

Even before the public got a crash course on spent fuel pools, their overcrowding and ill-placement was a safety issue raised by nuclear watchdogs.  In 2005, a coalition of groups including Public Citizen petitioned the NRC regarding the vulnerabilities of spent fuel.

Before The New York Times featured the acronym MOX (mixed oxide) on its front page, activists in South Carolina were warning their elected officials about turning the Savannah River Site into a MOX fuel  factory . Three groups have an ongoing intervention before the NRC opposing a licensing for the MOX fuel plant.

The NRC’s  predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission raised flags on the containment design of the General Electric Mark I reactor – the same design as the crippled reactors in Japan – as far back as 1972. Stephen Hanauer, an Atomic Energy Commission official,  said that the Mark I  smaller containment design was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup of hydrogen.

There are other neglected issues that are getting renewed attention such as emergency evacuations and the wisdom of locating several reactors at the same site, and there will be several other issues that arise as lessons from the Japan crisis continue to surface.

Jaczko acknowledged that we probably won’t know for years what has been going on inside the reactors. He insisted that spent fuel can be managed safely.

That’s where Public Citizen and Jaczko vehemently disagree. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous and not worth the risk.