Statement of Senator James M. Jeffords
Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety
Oversight Hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Thank you Mr. Chairman, today's hearing continues our ongoing oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I believe this is the seventh oversight hearing the Subcommittee has held in the last eight years. Chairman Voinovich, you and Ranking Member Carper deserve credit for continuing the commitment to hold these hearings regularly in order to review the NRC’s activities. Today, I want to discuss the Commission’s follow up to an incident involving missing pieces of fuel rods at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in my state. The Government Accountability Office is here today to discuss the results of a study they completed on this issue at my request. I am pleased with their work, and with their close attention to the concerns of the Vermont and Massachusetts delegation in drafting it. I appreciate too that Chairman Diaz has always been willing to discuss my concerns with operational and safety issues at Vermont Yankee with me directly. I also want to say to the Chairman and all the Commissioners present that I am pleased you are here today. The mission of the NRC is one of the most vital missions carried out by the federal government. Regulating the nation's civilian use of nuclear materials, ensuring adequate protection of public health and safety when these materials are used or disposed of, and protecting the environment are all critical. I want to make myself perfectly clear, and I know the Chairman and Ranking Member of this Subcommittee share my view: the top priority for the NRC is safety. There is no greater issue than safety. I want my Vermont constituents and people across the country to be safe and it is the NRC's job to guarantee it. As you are well aware, last year there were some serious problems at Vermont Yankee which I discussed at length at our last oversight hearing. Vermont Yankee, operated by Entergy, discovered that two pieces of radioactive fuel rods were missing from the plant's storage facilities. Either was capable of quickly giving a lethal dose of radiation to an unshielded handler. Though these materials were found to have never left the plant and were in the spent fuel pool, the search to locate these materials raises serious questions about whether the NRC is conducting appropriate oversight of nuclear materials at individual nuclear plants and whether the federal government should change its nuclear materials management policies. The loss of fuel rods at Vermont Yankee was the second incident of missing nuclear fuel at a Northeastern nuclear plant in five years. When the Millstone incident occurred, the NRC said that fuel rods had never before gone missing in the history of commercial nuclear power in the United States. While I know that the materials at Vermont Yankee were found to be missing due in part to the new inspection procedures the NRC instituted after Millstone, the sad fact is that fuel again went missing. We must improve our nuclear materials accounting system, we must do it now, and I hope the GAO’s work is the first step in crafting better materials accounting legislation. If we are going to be serious about protecting our environment while providing safe, reliable, and affordable electricity for all Americans, we need to increase our use of renewables, improve how we burn fossil fuels, promote energy efficiency, and make certain that nuclear plants operate well and safely. Again, I thank Chairman Diaz, the rest of the Commissioners, and the other witnesses for coming here to discuss these issues. I look forward to their testimony and to working with my colleagues.