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US NRC procedures impede congressional fact-finding: senator


New internal commission procedures adopted in September by the US NuclearRegulatory Commission are impeding congressional oversight and fact-finding,Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat-California, said during a hearing Thursday.

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Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and PublicWorks, which oversees NRC, said in her opening statement that the agency "hasrecently made a unilateral and disturbing change to its policies on providinginformation to Congress."

"The NRC's previous policy provided documents to members of Congressserving on committees with NRC oversight authority and to members requestinginformation about nuclear facilities in their states or districts," she said."Without notifying the EPW committee and -- I believe acting outside of theNRC's authority -- the commission issued a new policy with substantial hurdlesand delays that could even be used to withhold information entirely from thechairs and ranking members of oversight committees."

Boxer said "[t]he new policy allows the NRC to broadly deny informationto individual members of Congress, even when the information is related tomatters affecting their home states."

Boxer pointed to her ongoing investigation of the closed San Onofrenuclear power plant in California as an example of the importance ofcongressional oversight.

"Just this week, NRC personnel attempted to restrict my staff's review ofrecords that I had requested related to the ongoing San Onofre investigationand even told my staff that they could be searched to ensure they had nottaken any documents," she said.

"Let me be clear -- no form of agency intimidation or obstruction will betolerated in this committee's investigation or its constitutional oversightresponsibilities," Boxer said.

"Action will be taken if you do not reverse your policy," she saidwithout elaborating.

Boxer also objected to the heavy foreign travel schedule of somecommissioners, saying that it has impeded oversight hearings, and that shewill request a full accounting of commissioners' foreign travel.

Boxer did not mention any commissioners by name.

The hearing was adjourned due to Senate floor action before anywitnesses, including NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, could testify. Acommittee staffer said the hearing will be rescheduled after the Thanksgivingholiday recess.

Macfarlane told reporters after the hearing that the changes in thecommission's internal procedures have not and will not affect the ability ofCongress to get information from the agency and oversee NRC.

"We've heard the concerns of the chairman, and I think in general there'sa misunderstanding," Macfarlane said. "There aren't terribly significantchanges."

Macfarlane described the changes as only affecting "sensitive documents,"which she said represent "very few" of the documents requested bycongressional staff.

"We are very aware of our obligation to be responsive to our oversightcommittees and to Congress in general," she said. "Nothing's changed inregards to our providing documents and information to Congress."

Macfarlane denied NRC staff had threatened to search congressionalstaffers.

"We would never say such a thing," she said.

Macfarlane disagreed with Boxer's characterization of NRC's survey,saying the survey concluded the agency's revised policy was "less restrictive"than that of many other federal agencies.

NRC will work with Boxer to address her concerns, Macfarlane said. Shedeclined comment on whether the documents in question related to the SanOnofre plant.

--Steven Dolley, by Annie Siebert,