I commend Sens. Carper and Voinovich for holding this hearing today, continuing the tradition of rigorous oversight that I started when I assumed the Chairmanship of this Subcommittee over ten years ago. Back then, the nuclear industry was preparing to extend existing plant licenses and was very concerned about significant uncertainties in the process, particularly the time involved and the requirements necessary to receive the extension. Since then, as a result of strong oversight by this Subcommittee, almost half the fleet has been approved for an additional twenty years of operation. It is our job to ensure that the Commission is an efficient regulator, true to its mission of protecting public health and safety, but also able to issue sound decisions in a timely fashion.
U.S. electricity demand is projected to grow 30% by 2030. Within the next 4 years, according to the North American Electric Reliability Council, six regions of our country may not have adequate electricity supplies to ensure reliability. We need an adequate, reliable, and diverse energy supply to power this great nation of ours, and nuclear energy is a vital component. New nuclear plants can’t be built within the next 4 years, but we need to ensure that new plants are being developed promptly and safely to meet our growing needs.
Last September, the NRC began to review licenses for new nuclear plants. This is a function the Commission has not performed since the ’70s with a revised rule that has never been used before. The nature of this situation makes strong leadership by the Commission extremely important. I am concerned that the Commission is not providing the policy and schedule guidance necessary for this process to proceed smoothly.
In 2004, the hearing notice for the LES National Enrichment Facility included a detailed schedule with deadlines for staff to complete various tasks and for completion of the hearing itself. The notice also directed the hearing boards to exclude certain issues from their consideration, issues that the Commission would address directly. Accordingly, the license was issued in 31 months, nearly achieving the Commission’s original schedule of 30 months, despite never having previously issued a license for a uranium enrichment facility. With the LES review as an example of efficient decision-making, it begs the question of why the same approach is not being used for new plant licensing.
Hearing notices issued for the current license applications are generic and provide no such guidance or schedule. NRC staff vaguely indicates one year for the hearing process but readily admits uncertainty about the time frame. Why is the Commission reluctant to ensure schedule discipline by including specific milestones in hearing notices?
Furthermore, key policy questions remain. Will the Commission defer to state agencies on determinations of the need for power? Will the Commission require licensees to analyze alternative sites if they have chosen to add a new reactor to an existing site?
The lack of clear schedules and resolution of key issues will compound the growing pains that the Commission and the industry must wrestle with as we end our 30-year construction hiatus. These are complications we simply can’t afford. The Commission’s review of licenses for new nuclear plants must be as efficient as possible without compromising safety. Keeping the lights on is fundamental to our nation’s energy security, and the NRC will undoubtedly play a critical role.