By Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. nuclear safety regulator faces resistance from his fellow commissioners over his push for a quick and sweeping overhaul of rules governing the nuclear power industry.
The first public comments from the four top officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggest that Chairman Gregory Jaczko faces an uphill battle for his ambitious plan to rewrite the rule book within five years.
Jaczko wants the NRC to provide clear direction to industry on changes within 90 days on the rules that are being remade in response to Japan's Fukushima nuclear power disaster. The regulator and industry would then implement the changes within five years.
A U.S. task force examining Fukushima -- the worst nuclear accident in 25 years -- recommended sweeping long-term changes for the NRC's regulations, but did not find any immediate safety threats to U.S. plants.
The changes would require a shift in NRC's safety regime that would force plants to plan for catastrophes far beyond what they were originally designed to withstand.
Some of the safety enhancements recommended by task force include tougher standards for back-up power supplies, back-up water supplies for pools holding plant waste, and improvements in reactors that share the same design as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.
"IMPORTANT, BUT EARLY STEP"
Three of the four commissioners, while not directly addressing Jaczko's timeline at a public meeting on Tuesday, stressed they wanted more time to hear from the industry and the public.
Calling the report "an important, but early step," Kristine Svinicki, a Republican commissioner, said the NRC needs to proceed with a "systematic and methodical review."
The recommendations "must be open to challenge by our many stakeholders and tested by the scrutiny of a wider body of experts ... prior to final commission action," Svinicki said.
William Magwood, a Democratic commissioner, called the report's ideas "intriguing and challenging" but said he wants to hear from people outside the agency.
"We may not agree with everything they suggest, but it would be arrogant of us not to listen to them very closely and very carefully," Magwood said.
William Ostendorff, a Republican commissioner, echoed calls for consultation.
"I personally do not believe that our existing regulatory framework is broken," Ostendorff said.
CRITICS URGE QUICK ACTION
The NRC's Chairman Jaczko has said he wants the commission to consider the recommendations in a series of public meetings.
On Monday, he warned that a failure to decide on a path forward could hold up applications for new reactors proposed by Southern and SCANA -- decisions that had been scheduled to be made in 2011.
Critics of nuclear energy urged the NRC to implement the changes as soon as possible, although they said some of the recommendations may not go far enough.
"We request that you set a deadline for the adoption of each recommendation, and take appropriate steps to ensure that robust public participation is an intrinsic element of this process," the group said in a letter signed by 15 groups, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)