During a renomination hearing before the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works committee Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pressed U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane on the agency's plans for the San Onofre nuclear plant.
The plant has been shut down for more than a year because of equipment problems with its replacement steam generators. The NRC is reviewing a restart plan submitted by plant operator Southern California Edison.
In the meantime, the NRC's office of investigations and office of inspector general are probing whether there was any wrongdoing by Edison. Boxer pushed Macfarlane for a commitment that NRC staff would not decide on the restart plan before those investigations are complete, but Macfarlane stopped short of agreeing.
"It’s my personal belief that the technical staff should have all the conclusions from the Office of Investigations investigation available to them prior to any restart decision," Macfarlane said. “... That said, the technical evaluation and Office of Investigations investigation are two separate processes and it’s very important that the agency maintain the integrity of these processes.”
"I agree there should be integrity," Boxer said. "I do not agree under any circumstances that there ought to be a restart before the entire investigation is complete.”
Macfarlane said she expects that the investigation and the technical restart review will conclude about the same time. If they do not, technical staff would consult with investigators about any safety issues that should affect the decision.
The NRC has said the technical evaluation may be completed in late June, but has backed off providing a date for a restart decision.
Separately, the agency will need to determine whether trial-like public hearings are required before the plant can restart. A special NRC panel of judges ruled that the restart proceedings amount to a license amendment, which requires an opportunity for public hearings, but did not specify when or how the hearings should take place.
Edison requested a narrow license amendment last month in hopes of speeding the restart decision. The company asked the NRC to approve the license amendment under an expedited process that would allow hearings to take place after restart.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth suggested that a move by the NRC to allow a restart before a hearing could lead to litigation. Boxer appeared to echo that in Thursday's hearing.
“Let me just say here – lawsuit," she said. "There is no way at all that any judge, in my view, reading the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruling that calls all of this an 'experiment' is going to allow all of this to go."
Despite their disagreement on San Onofre, Boxer said she thought Macfarlane was a good commission leader.
[For the Record, 2:56 p.m.: Due to a typographical error, a previous version of this post said Boxer pressed for a commitment that NRC staff would decide on the restart plan before the investigations are complete. Boxer asked for a commitment that staff would not decide on restart before investigations are complete].