Statement of Senator James M. Jeffords, I-Vt.
EPW Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety
Hearing on the Regulatory Processes
for New and Existing Nuclear Plants
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. In today's hearing, the Subcommittee will conduct needed oversight. We will examine the NRC’s efforts to regulate and ensure the safety of existing and proposed new nuclear reactors. Chairman Voinovich, this is a timely and important topic. You and Ranking Member Carper deserve credit for continuing to hold regular oversight hearings on nuclear issues during this session of Congress. We should be focused on the safe operation of existing plants. As I said at our last hearing, the Commission and the nuclear industry are planning for a “nuclear renaissance” with the construction of new nuclear plants. But we must maintain continued oversight over existing plants. This month, the NRC increased its estimate of the number of new license requests that the agency will receive between now and the year 2012. In just the past two weeks, that estimate has gone up from 13 plants to 17 plants. Even if the NRC is able to meet such an aggressive schedule for new plants, this country is dependent upon existing, aging nuclear plants. We should not cut back our efforts to ensure that existing plants operate well and safely. We are boosting the power output of existing plants and extending the terms of their licenses. The public needs to be confident that the current fleet operates well, or they will be unlikely to accept a new generation of plants. Over the last few years, we’ve had several issues at operating plants. Some have been significant safety issues. Others, though not as significant from a safety perspective, have eroded public confidence in the NRC. One such instance was the loss of spent fuel rods at Vermont Yankee in 2004. As a result of this and other incidents of lost spent nuclear fuel, I asked the GAO to study how the NRC controls this intensely radioactive material. In its April 2005 report, the GAO recommended that the NRC establish requirements for the control of loose fuel rods and develop inspection procedures to verify plants’ compliance. In a letter sent to me more than a year ago, the NRC stated that it had several actions ongoing to address the shortcomings identified by the GAO. But, I am disappointed to learn recently that the NRC has made little progress in actually implementing these recommendations. I would welcome additional information about how the NRC plans to address this important issue. The NRC needs to redouble its efforts to work with the public, and to shore up public confidence in its regulatory efforts. This is a difficult task, but one that is critically important. I thank the witnesses for coming here to discuss these issues. Along with other members of the Committee, I want to acknowledge and thank Chairman Diaz for his ten years of service at the NRC. I know you will be successful in your future endeavors, and I wish you well.