U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   02/13/2003
 
Sen. George V. Voinovich, of Ohio
Oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Hearing will come to order. Good Morning.

Today’s hearing continues our ongoing oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This oversight began by my predecessor, Chairman Inhofe, when he was the Chairman of this Subcommittee in 1998, and is the 5th oversight hearing in 6 years. I believe that Chairman Inhofe deserves a lot of credit for starting these hearings. It is my intention as chairman to continue this strong oversight.

One of the main issues that I would like to discuss today is an incident involving a nuclear plant in my state of Ohio. While this may be the first time that I am discussing the matter at a public hearing, this is not my only involvement. I appreciate that the NRC has been open and responsive to my requests for information. I am particularly thankful to Chairman Meserve and his willingness to keep me apprised of this situation. I want to thank all of the NRC commissioners and Inspector General for being here today.

Today’s hearing is the first of these oversight hearings since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. As all of you are undoubtedly aware, concerns over terrorist attacks on America’s nuclear facilities are real and are warranted.

Members of this Committee on both sides of the aisle – including myself – have worked with the Administration on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the protection of our nuclear facilities. Senator Jeffords while he was Chairman of this Committee worked very hard on this issue, as have Senators Reid and Clinton.

I was pleased that Senator Jeffords held one hearing on nuclear security and then a second closed hearing that I requested for national security reasons. Chairman Inhofe and I intend to hold hearings later this year on the issue of nuclear security and will likely mark up a nuclear security bill.

Because we intend to hold those hearings and markups later, I would ask that we keep the focus of this hearing on the operations, budget, and oversight activities of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – rather than on the very valid issues surrounding nuclear security.

The Mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is one of the most vital missions carried out by the federal government – to regulate the Nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment.

I want to focus for just a minute on the three aspects of this regulatory mission – which is laid out in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974.

The first, and most important, of the NRC’s critical missions is regulation of nuclear materials in order to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety.

I want to make myself perfectly clear here: The number one issue for the NRC is safety. Period. There is no greater issue. I want the people I serve in Ohio and my fellow Americans to be safe, and it is the NRC’s job to guarantee it.

As you are well aware, there have been some serious problems at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station since this panel’s last oversight hearing and the reactor at Davis-Besse, located in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and operated by First Energy, has been shut down for a year.

Investigations – conducted by FirstEnergy and the NRC – have revealed that boric acid corrosion had eaten entirely through a 6.63 inch thick carbon-steel RPV head, and almost entirely through a thin internal liner of stainless steel cladding. This stainless steel cladding, which is not designed to act as a system pressure boundary, was the only thing preventing a major Loss-of-Coolant accident that could have released some 60,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid from the reactor and into the containment area.

Following this discovery, I was assured that there were safety measures in place that would have prevented a major nuclear accident. I was told that the people of Ohio were safe because of the design of the plant. To my dismay, I read a newspaper article on Tuesday in the Akron Beacon Journal entitled “Nuclear plant’s cooling system flawed.” It seems that the emergency cooling system at Davis-Besse that is intended to prevent a nuclear disaster, and I quote from a FirstEnergy engineer, “would not have worked as it’s designed to work.” Although I was told immediately following this incident that there were adequate safety measures in place to prevent a disaster, the fact of the matter is that this plant’s safety measures might have been deficient. I was told one thing but read in the newspaper another. I want some answers. I want someone to tell me what is going on here.

But is does not stop there. Subsequent investigations have also revealed that both FirstEnergy and the NRC missed several opportunities to identify and correct the corrosion problem before last February. In fact, the NRC has concluded that the boric acid problems had been present and discoverable since 1996. This is particularly troubling to me.

Simply put, I want to get to the bottom of these events. I have expressed my extreme concern to FirstEnergy over what has happened. I have asked the GAO to investigate what happened at Davis Besse, and now it is your turn to hear my concern.

It is simply not good enough to know what happened at Davis Besse. I want to know what the NRC has done to correct the problems. I want to know what the NRC is doing to prevent this from ever happening again at Davis-Besse or any other nuclear power plant in America. And I want to know what the NRC is doing to get Davis-Besse back online in a manner that will absolutely protect the people of Ohio.

I am pleased that the people most intimately affected by Davis-Besse, the people of Ottawa County are so actively involved in the determination of when and if Davis-Besse will be online.

I would like to read a portion of a statement by Jere Witt, Ottawa County Administrator, who has asked that I submit his statement in our record of this hearing:

“A renewed stringent regulation by the NRC must be part of this process. This regulation must be based on knowledge and common sense, not one influenced by political agenda’s. My personal thanks to NRC staff especially (Jim Dyer, Jack Grobe, Bill Dean, Christine Lipa) for their open and candid discussion with the residents of Ottawa County and myself. They have gone above and beyond to insure we are informed. I would also like to express my appreciation to FirstEnergy especially (Peter Berg, Bob Saunders, Lew Myers) for allowing me to participate on the Restart Overview Panel. They have provided me free access to all facets of Davis-Besse.”

I ask unanimous consent that the entire statement be submitted into the record. No objection heard, it is so ordered.

With that being said, I hope that you think we provide comfortable chairs for our witnesses, because you are going to be sitting in them again and again until this Committee is absolutely assured that you have taken the necessary steps to prevent this kind of potential disaster from ever happening again.

The second of the NRC’s critical missions is to promote the common defense and security.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, this Committee has conducted a comprehensive review of the nation’s nuclear facilities, held hearings on their safety and security, marked up nuclear security legislation and participated in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. As I have already mentioned, we intend to hold more hearings on this topic later.

Although the NRC was not moved into the Department of Homeland Security, it is most important that the Commission be considered as a Homeland Security Agency. President Bush’s FY 2004 Budget request includes $53.1 million for Homeland Security activities at the NRC – more than a 50 percent increase. I would like to hear from the Commission what it intends to do with this money and how it intends to work with the newly created Department of Homeland Security. There are also some other questions that I think we all have concerning your recent budget proposal that need an explanation. Particularly, it is my understanding that the Administration has proposed cutting spending on inspection activities. I just don’t understand that, especially when according to what I have read, the NRC did an inadequate job on inspecting and monitoring what was going on at Davis-Besse.

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce, I am convinced that if the NRC had the right people, with the right knowledge and skills in the right place at the right time – and if FirstEnergy had the right people, with the right knowledge and skills in the right place at the right time – we would not be having this discussion today.

Lastly, the third of the NRC’s critical missions is to protect the environment.

Over the last 40 years, nuclear energy has proven to be a safe, reliable, and clean source of energy. It currently produces 20 percent of our electricity, and since 1973 the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity has prevented 62 million tons of sulfur dioxide, over 32 million tons of nitrogen, and over 2.6 billion tons of carbon from being released into our air.

The Energy Information Administration predicts that we will need about a 30 percent increase in electrical generation by the year 2015. Today, we are dependent on fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – and we will be for the foreseeable future. Nuclear energy continues to be our next best alternative.

If we are going to be serious about protecting our environment while providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity to all Americans, we need to increase our use of renewable energy, improve how we burn fossil fuels, promote efficiency, and increase the development of nuclear energy.

If we are to do this we must ensure the public that those facilities now in operation are safe. I am anxious to hear from our witnesses today about how they can guarantee that they are safe.

Our witnesses today include the chairman and commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as the Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I would like to thank Chairman Meserve and the rest of the Commission for coming down here to discuss these issues, and I look forward to their testimony and to working with my colleagues on these issues.