U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   05/20/2004
 
Statement of Senate James M. Jeffords
Oversight on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Thank you Mr. Chairman, today's hearing continues our ongoing oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I believe this is the sixth oversight hearing the Subcommittee has had in the last seven years. Chairman Voinovich, you and Ranking Member Carper deserve credit for continuing the commitment to hold these hearings regularly in order to review the NRC’s activities.

Today, I want to discuss both the NRC’s handling of extended power uprates and a recent incident involving missing pieces of fuel rods at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in my state. I appreciate that Chairman Diaz and Commissioner Merrifield have been willing to discuss my concerns about the recent events at the Vermont Yankee with me directly. I also want to say to the Chairman and all the Co

mmissioners that I am pleased you are here today.

The mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is one of the most vital missions carried out by the federal government. Regulating the nation's civilian use of nuclear

As you are well aware, there have been some serious problems at Vermont Yankee since this panel's last oversight hearing. Vermont Yankee, operated by Entergy, discovered that two pieces of radioactive fuel rods were missing from the plant's storage facilities last month. Officials with Entergy Nuclear have said they could not find two rods, one seven inches and another about 17 inches long. Either is capable of quickly giving a lethal dose of radiation to an unshielded handler. The NRC has been involved in Vermont Yankee inspections using a remote-control camera to see if they misplaced the rods among the 2,789 spent fuel rods in the plant's spent fuel pool. The NRC is also working with the utility to review records and see if two missing fuel rods from the plant are in waste facilities in South Carolina or Washington.

Company officials speculate the rods may have been confused with low-level waste and shipped to the out-of-state storage sites. So far, efforts to locate the rods at the Vermont Yankee facility have failed. This is an outrageous and frightening situation for Vermont families. The Commission must commit its resources to ensure that this material is accounted for immediately. I stand ready to assist the NRC in any way necessary to make sure that these materials are found and secured.

But, I note, that this is the second incident of missing nuclear fuel at a Northeast nuclear plant in five years. When the Millstone incident occurred, the NRC said that fuel rods had never before gone missing in the history of commercial nuclear power in the United States. While I know that the materials at Vermont Yankee were found to be missing due in part to the new inspection procedures the NRC instituted after Millstone, the sad fact is that fuel is again missing. I do not want missing fuel to become the norm. It is not enough to tell the public that we “think” it is likely that highly radioactive material went to storage. We must improve our nuclear materials accounting system, and we must do it now.

I want to know what the NRC is going to do to prevent this from ever happening again at Vermont Yankee or, for that matter, at any other nuclear facility in America.

Keeping with my view that safety is “job one” for the NRC, I also want to know what the NRC is doing to ensure that any boost in Vermont Yankee’s power will be reviewed in a thorough manner. Entergy has asked the NRC to approve its proposal to boost the power from Vermont Yankee by 20 percent. As you know, the NRC must determine whether or not such an extended power uprate will jeopardize the plant's ability to operate safely. I expect the NRC to explain, design, and conduct a review that will allow Vermonters to have confidence that if an uprate is approved for Vermont Yankee, the plant will be reliable and safe for the long term.

I am pleased that the NRC agreed to Senator Leahy’s and my request to hold a public meeting in Vermont in March to explain the uprate review process. Many constituents have told me that this was a helpful meeting, but more needs to be done to inform and assure Vermonters. The review of Vermont Yankee’s uprate will be the first time that the NRC will conduct such a review using the new extended power uprate guidelines issued in December 2003.

I am also pleased that the NRC has agreed to conduct a pilot inspection and collect additional information as requested by the Vermont Public Service Board. The purpose of these additional inspections will be to collect data about the plant’s operations under the proposed boosted power conditions. This is information Vermonters want. I am pleased that my state will be doing a service to the country as they work with the NRC through the use of new guidelines and the implementation of a new pilot inspection program. The NRC has an opportunity to assure this Subcommittee that they will make these new guidelines and inspections work, that they will implement them in a thorough and transparent way, and that they will strive to address the concerns of the public.

If we are going to be serious about protecting our environment while providing safe, reliable, and affordable electricity for all Americans, we need to increase our use of renewables, improve how we burn fossil fuels, promote energy efficiency, and make sure that nuclear plants operate well and safely.

Again, I thank Chairman Diaz, the rest of the Commissioners, and the other witnesses for coming here to discuss these issues. I look forward to their testimony and to working with my colleagues.