U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   05/20/2004
Statement of Senator George V. Voinovich
Oversight on 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 is the sixth in a series of oversight hearings that began in 1998 when Senator Inhofe was chairman of this Subcommittee. I thank Chairman Inhofe for his leadership on this issue as strong oversight of the NRC is critical to the welfare of the American public.

Nuclear power is a necessary and sound part of our energy future that makes sense for our environment and our economy. It is a reliable and stable source of energy, providing 20 percent of the country’s electricity with zero harmful air emissions. In Ohio, it provides 12 percent.

In order to harmonize our economic, energy, and environment needs, nuclear power must continue to grow and NRC plays a vital role in its future. The three basic components of NRC’s mission are to regulate the nation’s civilian use of nuclear materials in order to promote the common defense and security, protect the environment, and ensure failsafe protection of public health and safety. While we so often talk about the goals of our agencies, we need to also talk about whether they have the workforce and budget to get the job done.

As I have done in the two previous NRC oversight hearings that I chaired, I want to make myself perfectly clear: The number one issue for the NRC is safety. Period. There is no greater issue. It is critical that the NRC be a credible agency that can guarantee the safety of the nation’s 103 operating nuclear plants.

Unfortunately, the NRC’s credibility is in serious question these days due to the March 2002 shutdown of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, which is located near my home town in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The discovery of a pineapple-sized cavity in the plant’s vessel head forced the shutdown of the plant for two years. This incident has been referred to as [quote] “the most serious safety issue confronting the nation’s commercial nuclear power industry since the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.”

While I am pleased that the plant has since restarted, is running at 100 percent, and has not had additional problems, many questions remain about the NRC’s actions before and after this incident. I ask that the General Accounting Office report – entitled: “NRC Needs to More Aggressively and Comprehensively Resolve Issues Related to the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant’s Shutdown” – that I requested as was released this week be inserted into the record.

This report looked at three questions: 1) why didn’t NRC identify and prevent the vessel head corrosion at Davis-Besse? 2) Was NRC’s process for deciding to allow the plant to delay shutdown credible? and 3) Is sufficient action being taken to prevent similar future problems?

I have serious concerns about the answers GAO found to these three questions and I want to hear from the commissioners today on the following issues: communication failures, questionable risk analysis, and the NRC’s refusal to assess licensees’ safety culture or develop specific guidelines for when to shutdown a plant.

Let me be very clear – I do not want these issues addressed in the context of what happened, but what is going to be done to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Since this is my main concern, the following from the GAO report is even more appalling (quote):

“The underlying causes of the Davis-Besse incident underscore the potential for another incident…to occur. This potential is reinforced by the fact that both prior NRC lessons-learned task forces and we [GAO] have found similar weaknesses in many of the same NRC programs that led to the Davis-Besse incident. NRC has not followed up on prior task force recommendations to assess whether the lessons learned were institutionalized.”

Basically, the GAO found that many of the same problems identified in this investigation were also identified in incidents before Davis-Besse but have never been never fully addressed. This is unacceptable. I am not going to let the Davis-Besse Lessons-Learned Task Force recommendations fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, the GAO claims that this may happen because of resource constraints at the NRC – which gets back to their budget and the number and quality of individuals that are working for the Commission.

At this point, I want to state for the record that this is not a Davis-Besse hearing. This incident basically serves as a model to what can happen when we lose focus of the main issue – safety. The NRC and the industry must hold themselves to a higher standard. In fairness to the Commission, I was impressed by their fastidiousness in deciding when Davis-Besse was ready to be restarted. This is the kind of scrutiny that I want to see for all of the facilities in the country.

As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce, I know that this level of oversight is dependent upon the human capital needs of the NRC – which I have long been concerned about. I am convinced that if both the NRC and FirstEnergy had the right people, with the right knowledge and skills in the right place at the right time – the Davis-Besse incident never would have happened.

Moreover, if the NRC is going to be able to move forward and credibly guarantee the safety of our nuclear facilities, they need to make sure they have enough people with the necessary level of knowledge and experience. I was shocked when I first reviewed the NRC and found they had six times as many employees older than sixty as under age thirty. I know the Commission has been working hard to address this need and was told at last year’s hearing that this six-to-one ratio has been reduced to two-to-one. I am interested to hear from the Commission what additional progress has been made in this area.

In addition to implementation of the Lessons-Learned Task Force recommendations, several important licensing issues are all occurring at the same time – re-licensing for existing plants, potential applications to build new facilities, and Yucca Mountain. I am interested in hearing from all of the witnesses today about the human capital situation throughout the industry and academia and what is being done to address the issue.

I welcome all of the witnesses here today and look forward to a good and thorough discussion about how the NRC and the industry will move forward with credibility, with the right people, and with safety at the forefront of all actions to ensure that nuclear power continues to be an important part of meeting our economic, energy, and environment needs.

That being said, the most important thing we need to do is to give complete assurance to the people of this country that our nuclear facilities are failsafe. This is very important because many people have come to me over the last two years and expressed concerns about being safe. Simply put, people ought not to go to bed worrying about the safety of our nuclear power plants.

Thank you.