The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday that he would oppose any proposal to give the agency authority over military reactors and other facilities used in the production of nuclear weapons.
While agreeing that the U.S. Department of Energy, which has jurisdiction over the reactors and other facilities connected with the weapons program, "does need strong oversight," NRC Chairman Lando W. Zech Jr. stressed that the commission should not be involved.
Some members of Congress and environmentalists are concerned that the Department of Energy may put weapons production ahead of safety questions, a charge that the department has repeatedly denied. Critics of the department have proposed that the NRC be given oversight responsibility for nuclear safety at facilities producing material for nuclear weapons.
Zech, a retired vice admiral and nuclear submarine commander, indicated that he was concerned that the current distinction between the civilian and military uses of nuclear power would be blurred if the NRC had oversight responsibility over both.
"The Department of Energy has responsibility for national security; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the commercial production of electricity. That's a rather good dividing line," Zech said.
"We have plenty on our plate for the NRC to do," Zech said in response to questions at a press conference at the Bonaventure, where the American Nuclear Society is holding its annual convention.
On Thursday, Zech is scheduled to testify before a House subcommittee that will hold hearings on four bills that call for independent oversight of the Department of Energy facilities.
Much of the concern over safety developed in the Pacific Northwest after the April, 1986, Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl reactor is in some ways similar to the Department of Energy's aging N Reactor at Hanford, Wash., which is used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Last month, the National Academy of Science said that $70 million in safety repairs at Hanford did not completely eliminate its safety concerns. The academy also found fault with three defense reactors at Savannah River, S.C.
Zech said as far as civilian nuclear plants are concerned, there is "reasonable assurance that the public health and safety is protected." He said the nuclear industry has an outstanding safety record and noted that no lives were lost, even during or after the partial meltdown of the reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in March, 1979, near Middletown, Pa.
But, in remarks repeated in a later address to more than 900 delegates, Zech emphasized the need for "good design, good maintenance and good people." He said that while most of the nation's 109 operating civilian nuclear power plants were operated well, nine were currently shut down because of regulatory or safety concerns, including Rancho Seco, which is located near Sacramento and operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
He said many of the deficiencies in the nine plants could be traced directly to bad management.
"We need to have leadership involvement," he said.
It was a theme echoed by Ronald C. Stinson, president of the American Nuclear Society in remarks to the same audience.