NRC Chairman Speaks to the National Press Club

The recent events in Japan and their implications for nuclear safety in this country are foremost on everyone’s mind. Since the events began to unfold four months ago, the NRC has taken strong and immediate actions to ensure the continued safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants.

The Commission established a task force, made up of some of the agency’s most experienced and expert staff. The task force had full access to the NRC headquarters and regional staff and the NRC site team in Japan. And, as part of its review, the task force reached out to FEMA as well as the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations. Additionally, the task force considered information from stakeholders and monitored international efforts and reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency, and others.

Last week, the task force completed its 90-day review and submitted its recommendations to the Commission. The Commission made the full report publicly available here:  http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1118/ML111861807.pdf.  The task force will formally present the report to the Commission at a public meeting tomorrow morning.

In its review, the task force did not find any imminent risk to public health and safety from the continued operation of the nation’s nuclear power plants. The task force was clear, however, that any accident involving core damage and uncontrolled radioactive releases of the magnitude of Fukushima – even one without significant health consequences – is inherently unacceptable.

In addition to 12 sets of recommendations, the task force calls on the Commission to redefine “adequate protection.” In NRC parlance, “adequate protection” is the standard of safety that the NRC must require of nuclear power plants and other licensees to allow them to operate. Over the past 25 years, there have been few occasions when the Commission has revisited this standard and redefined how safe is safe enough. We did so after September 11th, and now, the task force believes, we should do so again. While the decision of whether we redefine this core definition of safety is for the Commission to make, it’s clear that Fukushima was an unacceptable accident and we need to take strong steps to ensure that type of accident does not happen in the United States.

In order to move forward openly and transparently, I have proposed to my Commission colleagues a roadmap for taking action on the report. The centerpiece of this proposal is a series of public Commission meetings. In the lead-up to these meetings, there would be opportunities for stakeholders to provide feedback on the task force’s recommendations and for the NRC staff to provide additional information to the Commission.

I see no reason why the Commission cannot provide clear direction on each of the task force recommendations in less than 90 days. That is the time the Commission gave the task force to do its job, and I believe that is more than enough time for the Commission to outline a clear path forward. We know that some changes are in order, and none of us want to make rushed, poor decisions. We must move forward, however, with the urgency called for by these safety issues. As Chairman, I am committed to ensuring that the Commission has all the information it needs to make timely decisions and take decisive actions in response to the task force’s recommendations.

That is why I am calling today for the NRC and the nuclear industry to commit to complete and implement the process of learning and applying the lessons of the Fukushima accident within five years – by 2016. This will take a lot of hard work, strong and decisive leadership from the Commission, and an even stronger commitment by our licensees to put safety first. We have no other choice. The costs of inaction are simply too high.

I believe that we are more than up to the task of seeing this effort through. This is not an NRC problem or a nuclear industry problem. This is an imperative for nuclear safety. The American people are looking to everyone involved in nuclear safety – from the operators to the regulators – to do their part in continuing to protect the public.

Gregory Jaczko
NRC Chairman

Moderator Note: The full transcript of this speech is available at: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/commission/speeches/2011/s-11-016.pdf.