406 Dirksen EPW Hearing Room

Bernard Sanders


Public safety must be job #1 when it comes to nuclear power and I have serious concerns that the aging fleet of nuclear plants in this country needs much more oversight than it currently gets to ensure that public safety remains the focus.

According to the September 2006 GAO report on Nuclear Oversight, from 2001 to 2005 NRC issued 5 red findings, the worst kind, and 7 yellow findings, which are just below red in terms of seriousness of the violation. The red findings involved steam generator tube failure, auxiliary feedwater pump problems and the infamous Davis-Besse frightening football-sized hole in the reactor vessel head caused by acid corrosion.

Problems happen and things fall apart when nuclear plants, and people, for that matter, get old. And when plants try to increase their power rating, that puts more stress on already aging nuclear plants. Some nuclear plants may be seeking a 20 year license extension. And some may be seeking both a power uprate and a license extension. With all of this, people are rightly concerned.

Given these circumstances, I have introduced S.1008. I mentioned this bill in my comments at the last hearing we held in April, but with the recent problems at Vermont Yankee, including a cooling tower collapse, seen HERE (Poster), I believe it bears repeating.

S.1008 allows a state’s Governor or public utility commission to request an Independent Safety Assessment, if they have a nuclear plant in their state. If a state is in the emergency planning zone for a nuclear plant in the state next door, they certainly have an interest in these issues as well and that is why my legislation would allow them to make the same request. For example, there are towns in the states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts that are within the emergency planning zone for the nuclear plant in Vermont and, under my legislation, those states would be allowed to request an Independent Safety Assessment.

Mr. Chairman, critical times at nuclear plants call for special inspections – both to ensure the public safety but also to boost public confidence. When a facility is seeking a power uprate, which is an increase in the power it is allowed to generate, as was recently approved for Vermont Yankee, that is a critical time. Or when a nuclear plant is seeking to get 20 more years of life out of an already 40 year old plant, as is also the case with Vermont Yankee, that too is a critical time. Or when a nuclear plant has had a history of safety problems, that is also a critical time. These are the circumstances under which my bill would allow for an Independent Safety Assessment.

Perhaps if there were more openness to outside experts, then the accidents and violations we have witnessed might have been avoided. For example, on August 21, 2007, one of the cells of the cooling tower collapsed at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. On August 30, 2007, there was an emergency shutdown involving stuck valves. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either of these accidents. However, these events make one wonder what is going on.

I’m not a nuclear engineer, but I think even a layperson can see a pattern developing. With the accident at the cooling tower at Vermont Yankee, it was the parts of the wooden structure that were difficult to inspect that collapsed. Whether it was the rusted bolts or rotten wood, these problems surely would have been discovered if someone looked, or was able to look. But like dust bunnies under the bed, sometimes problems that are not easy to see will grow over time.

Remember the Davis-Besse reactor vessel lid? It is difficult to inspect inside this lid, therefore it was not inspected for a long time.

I know that some will say that changes have been made in the Reactor Oversight Process since 2002, but I am not convinced that the changes are enough to ensure the level of safety and public confidence that we need, taking into consideration that many nuclear plants are seeking or will be seeking an additional 20 year extension on their license, many have sought or will seek a power uprate and, unfortunately, the 2006 GAO report tells us that eleven nuclear plants have had more than two white safety violations, since 2001. These are the three critical times, license extensions, power uprates and multiple violations, that I identified in my bill.

Mr. Chairman, I ask that a copy of the Monday Oct 1, 2007 Keene, New Hampshire Sentinel editorial be made a part of the record. [Pause…Without objection] This editorial details the lack of public confidence in Vermont Yankee from our neighbors in New Hampshire, including the 2004 vote of the New Hampshire Senate calling for an independent evaluation of our nuclear plant, and the two New Hampshire Congressmen who have co-sponsored the House version of my bill, introduced by Vermont Congressman Peter Welch. Many share our concern.

Let me anticipate, and respond to, some of the arguments that have been raised against my bill:

I have heard that some believe that the Reactor Oversight Process is better than the Independent Safety Assessment. My response is: Why not supplement the routine Reactor Oversight Process of periodic inspections with an infrequent full bore independent safety assessment? It might be that the Independent Safety Assessment will, as it did at Maine Yankee in 1996, find a whole lot of problems that had been hidden or overlooked for years.

How about the suggestion that there might be lots of state requests for independent safety assessments? Do those in industry as well as the NRC really think that nuclear power is so widely distrusted in America? If so, then there is no better way to earn that trust again than by an open door policy with state officials and other outside experts.

Frankly, I have not heard one good reason why those who support nuclear energy should oppose my bill. In fact, if they were smart, they would support the effort to show that nuclear power has nothing to hide.

I appreciate today’s witnesses appearing in front of the Committee this morning and look forward to hearing their testimony.