406 Dirksen EPW Hearing Room
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Today, the Environment and Public Works Committee is holding its ninth oversight hearing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Japan.
It has been more than three years since the Fukushima disaster, and Japan is still struggling to clean up the site.
The massive underground ice wall intended to prevent radioactive water from flowing into the sea will take a year to finish and cost more than $300 million.
We must learn from the tragic events in Fukushima and take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States. Today I am continuing to focus on whether the NRC has done that.
It is vitally important that the NRC remain committed to its mission, which is “to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment.”
Based on a review of the progress made since the Fukushima disaster and on what additional steps need to be taken by NRC to ensure the safety of the people and the environment, I am afraid that you may have lost sight of that mission.
The Fukushima Near-Term Task Force, made up of NRC senior staff, recommended 12 measures to upgrade safety in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns.
In August 2011, the former NRC Chairman testified before our Committee that the NRC should be able to act on those recommendations within 90 days and that they could be implemented within 5 years.
As of today, the NRC has failed to require reactor operators to complete implementation of a single one of these post-Fukushima safety measures. Some reactor operators are still not in compliance with the safety requirements that were in place BEFORE Fukushima. And the NRC has only completed its own action on 4 of the 12 Task Force recommendations.
This is an unacceptable delay that puts the safety of the American people at risk.
I also have serious concerns about the safety of spent nuclear fuel. NRC’s own studies show that the consequences of a fire at a spent nuclear fuel pool can be as serious as a severe accident at an operating reactor.
Not only does NRC allow that fuel to be stored in the spent fuel pools indefinitely, NRC is considering requests from decommissioning reactor operators for exemptions from emergency response measures designed to protect nearby communities. While the Nuclear Energy Institute claimed in a letter sent to me yesterday that these exemptions are granted only when “special circumstances” exist at a facility, the truth is that NRC has never once denied one. It rubber-stamps them every single time a reactor shuts down. I have introduced three bills with Senators Markey and Sanders to increase the safety of spent nuclear fuel and improve the decommissioning process.
These are not theoretical concerns. On the same day that this Committee held a hearing on this topic last month, an out-of-control wildfire was burning a half a mile away from the San Onofre nuclear plant.
My concern about NRC’s commitment to identify and remedy safety problems is also highlighted by my investigation into the installation of defective equipment at San Onofre. For example, I learned that NRC staff was preparing to allow the re-start of one of the reactors before it had received a single answer to any of the technical safety questions it asked Southern California Edison to submit. This oversight investigation is important, not only to get to the bottom of the problems at San Onofre, but also to avoid disastrous problems like this in the future. I am also concerned that whistleblowers at NRC feel they have no recourse but to contact Congress to report safety problems, because NRC’s internal procedures for addressing these concerns are broken.
Remarkably, NRC is continuing to obstruct my investigation by withholding documents that the Committee has a right to receive. Let me be clear -- the NRC has no legal right whatsoever to refuse to provide the Committee with these documents, and today I will make available a comprehensive analysis of this conclusion.
In order for the nuclear industry to maintain the confidence of the American people at a time when it is increasingly challenged by safety and economic concerns, the agency charged with regulating the nuclear industry must always make public safety its number one priority. NRC’s recent track record does not inspire confidence.
I look forward to discussing these issues with you at today’s hearing.