Senate Panel Fails to Get to Bottom of Uranium Shipment Approvals

WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. nuclear regulators on Wednesday declined to explain why a Russian-owned mining company was allowed to export uranium to Canada, Asia and Europe over a two-year period beginning in 2012 despite years-old rules prohibiting such licenses.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., pressed Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki for a response to a letter he submitted about the uranium deal on Monday.

In 2010, Canadian mining company Uranium One was given permission by the nuclear commission to  use a trucking company’s export permit to transport uranium outside the United States.

The uranium was purchased by ARMZ, a subsidiary of the Russian-owned nuclear company, Rosatom.

“The former chairman [Gregory Jaczko] said in order to export uranium from the U.S. by Uranium One, [ARMZ] would need to apply for and obtain a specific license authorizing the export of uranium for use in a nuclear reactor,” Barrasso said Wednesday.  “We know this is false. They didn’t need one.”

Instead, the Canadian company only needed to be listed – and later was listed – as a “supplier” on the export license.  Using the loophole, U.S. uranium was successfully shipped overseas.

Barrasso has set a deadline of Jan. 31 for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to respond, but he needled Svinicki on Wednesday, anyway.

“When can I get a timely response [to my letter?]” he asked.

“As your letter makes clear, the responses you have received [about this in the past] have not fully depicted the complexity of the issues,” Svinicki offered.

Barrasso noted he also sent a letter on the matter to the Department of Energy. and that it also hasn’t responded to his questions. No representatives of the department were in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting.

Courthouse News reached out to the Energy Department, but it has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Barrasso said he asked the department to explain why it once said it had “no role in the matter” when concealed uranium exports were first made public.

Jeffrey Baran, an NRC commissioner who focuses on safety issues at reactors be decommissioned, was equally mum on details of the uranium deal. Instead, he shared concerns over other loopholes impacting reactors that are going out of service.

“Since 2013, six reactors have shut down, seven more will close in the next couple years. Despite the growing number, no regulations are currently tailored for the transition to decommission,” Baran said.

Absent guidance from federal regulators, utilities decommissioning reactors often seek regulatory exemptions to continue operating.

“We can move away from regulating by exemption. It’s not efficient. There’s no public participation,” Baran said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., responded by accusing the Obama administration of spending eight years “fighting a war on fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas” while ignoring the potential within the nuclear industry.

Inhofe said a plan had been set forth in 2015, called Project Aim, and that it included clear directives to streamline regulations, boost staff levels, and increase reactor safety standards. To date, he said, these goals have simply not been met.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., said she was troubled by a report from the Government Accountability office that she said identified problems in how the regulator manages its budget.

“It seems as though NRC is keeping two sets of books. One to formulate its budget and another to obligate funds based appropriation from Congress. You have a budget in your budget,” Capito said.

Capito noted the commission sought roughly $25 million in additional funding for full-time employees in September, while hiring by the commission is down by 12 percent.

“Where are the extra dollars that were actually appropriated but not fulfilled,” Capito asked.

Svinicki said some of the money is earmarked as “carryover” funding in the next fiscal year. She explained the apparent shortfall in hiring as a “forecasting error.”

But the same error was made just a month later, Capito noted.

“In your October 2017 budget, you budgeted for 3,293 full-time employees but in reality its 3,137. The pattern is still continuing,” the senator said.

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