The hearing will come to order. Good morning and thank you all for coming.
I am pleased to have all five members of the Commission here today. Chairman Diaz and Commissioners McGaffigan, Merrifield, Jaczko, and Lyons – welcome. We appreciate all of you taking time out of your busy schedules to be here this morning especially since NRC’s 18TH Annual Regulatory Information Conference is being held this week.
Today’s hearing continues this Committee’s strong oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is the eighth in a series of oversight hearings that began in 1998 when Senator Inhofe was chairman of this Subcommittee. I thank the Chairman for his leadership on this issue, as strong oversight of the NRC is critical to the welfare of the American public.
This is also the third hearing that the Committee has held this year on the important issue of energy. I held a hearing on natural gas prices, and Chairman Inhofe held a hearing last week that I was unfortunately unable to attend on Yucca Mountain. The energy challenges that we face today and into the future threaten our global competitiveness. High natural gas prices are having a devastating impact on our constituents across the country, and we need to do everything we can to bring these costs down. I am calling for a “Second Declaration of Independence” to make us less dependent on foreign sources of energy, and nuclear power plays an integral role in fulfilling our declaration.
Nuclear power provides about six percent of the electricity consumed in my state and about 20 percent nationally. It is emission free power, and by increasing its use, we can help meet our energy needs, be less reliant on natural gas, and improve the quality of our air.
That is why this Committee spent a considerable amount of time last year on nuclear related legislation, in addition to holding an oversight hearing and a closed hearing on nuclear security. Several provisions to provide for the safe and secure growth of nuclear power were enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. These include three bills that Chairman Inhofe and I introduced: Nuclear Safety and Security Act (S.864), Price-Anderson Amendments Act (S.865), and Nuclear Fees Reauthorization Act (S.858). We were also able to secure $41 million above the President’s request for the NRC through FY2006 appropriations for security and human capital activities.
The bottom line is that we have provided every legislative and funding provision that NRC requested and more. All of these provisions have led the Commission to project that they will receive applications for 11 or more new plants in the next 2 to 3 years. This is a huge challenge for an agency that has not seen this type of major licensing actions in the last 25 years or so.
In addition to new reactors, the Commission must continue to deal with license renewals and increased generation capacity for existing plants, security assessments and regulations, licensing Yucca Mountain, and the day-to-day regulatory activities for the nation’s 103 operating plants. As the Commission’s workload increases over the next few years, I have become increasingly concerned about the availability of qualified personnel especially when a significant number of experienced employees will be lost due to retirement.
I am particularly interested in hearing from the Commission about the number of employees they have lost over the past few years and their retirement situation today. I understand that the NRC has a goal of hiring 350 people annually for the next several years, and I would like to know how the new human capital provisions that we recently passed are being utilized in this effort.
As an aside, the Commission’s needs are a prime example of why Congress must pass the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge through Energy Act of 2006 (S. 2197). This legislation is aimed at implementing the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” – which focuses on improving our nation’s competitiveness by increasing our nation’s research capacity, emphasizing math and science education, and producing more scientists and engineers.
Our Subcommittee will focus even more this year on overseeing the NRC due to the important role they play in our nation’s energy future and their increased workload and resource constraints. I look forward to hearing from the Commissioners and spending some quality time this morning fully exploring these important issues.
We invited only the Commissioners for today’s hearing to accommodate the Subcommittee’s examination of the Commission’s progress on a full spectrum of areas. I anticipate that there will be at least one more NRC oversight hearing this year that will include other witnesses. At the next hearing, I am specifically interested in getting a status report on all of the issues that we discuss today.
Notwithstanding some of their high profile activities, NRC and the industry must keep safety at the center of all that they do. Ensuring safety and security of our nuclear power plants is absolutely essential if we are to continue and hopefully increase our nation’s use of nuclear energy, which I believe is essential to meeting our environmental, energy, and economic needs.