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Three U.S. senators, alarmed about aging problems at the nation’s nuclear power plants, asked Thursday for a congressional investigation of safety standards and federal oversight at the facilities.

The request by Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont builds on increased public concern about nuclear safety after the nuclear plant disaster in Japan.

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Public interest first spiked after the March accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan.

Senators Boxer, Whitehouse and Sanders asked for the oversight investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Boxer chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

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New Jersey’s two Democratic senators, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, made a similar request of the GAO earlier this week.

In a GAO report released Tuesday by Democratic Reps. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont, the watchdog agency concluded that nuclear power plant operators haven’t figured out how to quickly find the underground leaks, which often go undetected for years.

Steven Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said heightened public concern is “understandable,” given the Japanese accident and heavy news coverage.
But he said the relicensing process, which can take years, is “properly focused,” that fire requirements are already strict, and the industry has been moving spent fuel into dry storage since the mid-1980s.

NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko has defended his agency as an effective regulator but also hinted at improvements. The commission expects to issue a report in July on a broad review of safety undertaken in the wake of the Japanese accident.

Speaking Tuesday in Vienna, Jaczko said plants are safe but added: “I believe there is a likelihood that the agency will need to make some changes.” He cited several problem areas that fed the disaster in Japan: extended power outages, spent fuel pools and emergency planning.

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