Summary of Hearings on Nuclear Energy Policy (7-28-08)

  • July 15, 2008: House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, Hearing on Next Steps toward Permanent Nuclear Waste Disposal.
  • October 31, 2007: Senate Full Committee on Environment and Public Works
    Hearing on S.37, "Examination of the Licensing Process for the Yucca Mountain Repository"
  • October 3, 2007: Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety
    Hearing on "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Reactor Oversight Process"

House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality , Hearing on "Next Steps toward Permanent Nuclear Waste Disposal"
July 15, 2008

The Honorable Shelley Berkley, Member of Congress(D-NV)
Mr. Edward F. Sproat, III Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Department of Energy (DOE)
Mr. Michael Weber, Director, Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Mr. Robert J. Meyers Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Air and Radiation, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Dr. B. John Garrick, Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board
Mr. Marvin S. Fertel Exec. Vice President & Chief Nuclear Officer, Nuclear Energy Institute
Ms. Anne C. George, Commissioner, Connecticut Dept of Public Utility Control; Chair, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Committee on Electricity

Members Present:
Chair Rick Boucher (D-VA)
Ranking Member Fred Upton (R-MI)
John Shimkus (R-IL)
Greg Walden (R-OR)
Edward Whitfield (R-KY)
Doris Matsui (D-CA)
Jim Matheson (D-UT)
Charles Gonzalez (D-TX)

The hearing discussed the next steps in determining the fitness of Yucca Mountain as a repository for spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste. Representatives from public and private agencies involved in the process detailed their roles and identified how Congressional support could facilitate their work.

Subcommittee Chair Rick Boucher (D-VA) began by congratulating the DOE on their recent submission of the licensing application for the Yucca Mountain site to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He expressed his concern over the low level of funding directed toward the civilian nuclear waste program.  Such withholdings, he felt might threaten the progress of the evaluation process, which is the next step in determining if Yucca Mountain would be a suitable repository.  “The long standing challenge of achieving funding for the program remains of paramount concern,” Boucher stated. Current policy mandates per-kilowatt fees on all U.S. nuclear generation and, Boucher noted, that of $750 million dollars paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund last year just $500 million was appropriated to the nuclear waste program, even as the fund balance collects almost $1 billion in interest each year. Boucher’s stated goal, and one of the main goals of the hearing, was to ensure the NRC would have adequate funding to review the DOE’s application within the 3-4 year mandated timeframe.

Ranking Member Fred Upton (R-MI) berated the Nuclear Waste Fund, labeling it a “black hole in the U.S. treasury” and expounding upon his concern for the accumulating liabilities the government owes to the nuclear rate payers. However, his overall opinion of nuclear power is optimistic. Upton alluded to “the coming nuclear renaissance… requiring hundreds of new reactors in the next 50-75 years” based on our growing need for clean power sources. He argued that since technology continues to reduce the nuclear footprint, the fuel “is in fact recyclable” and ought to be categorized as a “renewable resource.”

Congressmen John Shimkus (R-IL), Greg Walden (R-OR) and Edward Whitfield (R-KY) voiced additional comments in support of nuclear power and the Yucca Mountain project. Walden and Whitfield in their comments encouraged hastened progress on the Yucca Mountain project, now 26 years advanced from the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, highlighting the costs and safety concerns of nuclear waste remaining spread across the country at various reactor sites.

Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Congressman Jim Matheson (D-UT) were not so enthusiastic. Matsui mentioned that she as well as her constituents “continue to have a number of reservations about nuclear power” although she recognized the need to confront the issue of nuclear waste in light of the 20% of national energy that is currently produced from nuclear reactors.

Matheson stated that although he does not oppose nuclear energy, he does “oppose the plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.” He claimed the Yucca mountain project is based on an “abundance of faith and not enough fact.” Noting that 88-97% of nuclear waste would travel through his state of Utah if Yucca Mountain were approved, he expressed his dismay that transportation safety and logistics have never been adequately addressed. In lieu of the permanent waste storage site, Matheson asked the committee to consider his legislation for interim storage (H.R. 4062).

Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-NV) testified that “75% of (Nevada) residents want to continue fighting the (Yucca Mountain) proposal.” She continued with a list of reasons detailing her constituents’ concern including: the lack of a radiation standard, an unsafe 90 mile proximity to Las Vegas, a price tag “ballooned” to $80 billion, certain conflicts of interest, natural earthquake and volcano hazards, the proposal’s reliance on technology not yet invented, and a transportation danger that would leave “50 million Americans at risk”. Berkley also pointed out that “Yucca Mountain will not eliminate wastes at plants where power is being generated” due to the mandated cap on waste storage capacity; Yucca Mountain “under current law is already full” and could not accept any newly produced waste. According to Berkley, “nuclear power can never be called a clean source of energy when the waste from these plants remains a threat for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Mr. Sproat indicated that upon submission of the licensing application DOE’s role “is transitioning from a science focus to a project execution focus.” Sproat mentioned four reports DOE will be releasing “in the near future:” the Total Life Cycle Cost Estimate, the Fee Adequacy Assessment, the Second Repository, and the Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel. He warned that with a lack of sufficient appropriations, which for construction and operations he estimates at $1.2-1.9 billion dollars a year, “the DOE will not be able to execute its responsibilities” and “government liability will continue to grow with no apparent limit.”

Mr. Weber assured the committee that the NRC would undertake “a comprehensive and independent safety review” to decide the merits of the DOE application for the licensing and construction of Yucca Mountain. The NRC’s role is to “issue technical criteria to be used in judging an application” and to make the final determination on its “compliance with applicable standards and regulations.”

Mr. Meyers discussed the EPA’s role in developing public health and environmental safety standards for Yucca Mountain. The EPA originally set a 10,000 year regulatory time frame for disposal standards including, “an individual dose standard, a standard evaluating the impacts of human intrusion into the repository and a ground water-protection standard,” but the National Academy of Science recommended standards “should be on the order of one million years.” EPA has since adopted the million year time frame and the current standard proposal would “require the DOE to show Yucca Mountain can safely contain wastes, even considering the effects of earthquakes, volcanic activity, climate change and corrosion over one million years.”

Mr. Garrick of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) described the role of his organization in conducting an independent “ongoing peer review of the technical and scientific validity of DOE activities related to implementing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.” Garrick indicated that although the NRC makes the final decision, the NWTRB, recommends they consider the following: unresolved issues with rail line transportation, the development and utilization of the TAD canister, uncertainty surrounding the erosion and corrosion of waste packaging and the natural and environmental hazards associated with earthquakes, volcanoes and climate change. Garrick also noted the EPA regulation requiring proof of 1 million years of safe radiation levels makes it hard to mitigate uncertainty. Overall though, Garret complimented the DOE on its achievement in submitting its application and concluded, “the Board did not uncover any issue that it believes would have prevented the DOE from submitting its license application for regulatory review.”

Mr. Fertel advised the committee that “growing interest in central interim storage and nuclear fuel recycling does not eliminate the need for geologic disposal of the residual waste product(s)… under any used nuclear fuel management scenario, a geologic repository will be necessary.” He advocated for increased funding from the Nuclear Waste Fund to enable progress, but offered strong reassurance in the interim claiming: “until the government is in a position to begin removing used fuel from reactor sites, the nation can remain confident that it will be safely and securely managed by industry.”

Ms. George reminded the committee of the federal government’s obligation to safely dispose of nuclear fuel. She continued, “the nation’s rate payers have upheld their part of the bargain….providing more than $27 billion for use in constructing a nuclear waste repository.” George also indicated that concerns surrounding the transportation of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain are the result of misinformation on the actual risk and she therefore requested an education campaign to demystify the process and reassure the public of their safety.

In the question and answer period the committee expressed their desire for the process to move forward in a timely fashion. Sproat hard lined that 2020 was the “shortest possible path” and “best achievable date” to begin storage at Yucca Mountain. Such a date would be possible, he insisted, only if the NRC was properly funded to complete their 3 year application review and if the DOE, upon having the application accepted, were to receive funding up to $2 billion a year. George reminded the committee that time was imperative as several members of her organization are involved in disputes over the removal of waste from reactor sites.

Boucher and Upton asked Sproat about the waste storage capacity for Yucca Mountain, currently set at 70,000 metric tons, but which some scientists suggest could hold 130,000 with no negative environmental impacts. Sproat replied that the DOE application only considered the smaller number set by law and the origin of the current limit was unknown.

Matheson poignantly asked, “If Yucca Mountain isn’t built is that the end of nuclear?” The answer from the DOE: “No. We’ll need alternatives but we should go forward.” Yet after 26 years spent focusing on Yucca Mountain it could be difficult. Representative Shimkus revealed a sense of how a disheartened or relieved public might respond to a rejection of the Yucca Mountain application when he remarked “if we can’t bury high level nuclear waste in a mountain, in the desert, then we just can’t …anywhere.”

Witness testimony can be found here.


Senate Full Committee on Environment and Public Works
Hearing on S.37, "Examination of the Licensing Process for the Yucca Mountain Repository"

October 31, 2007


Panel I
Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)
Senator John Ensign (R-NV)
Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)

Panel II
Edward F. Sproat III, Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, U.S. Department of Energy
Robert J. Meyers, Principal Deputy, Assistant Administrator, Office of Air and Radiation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Michael Weber, Director, Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Panel III
Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, State of Nevada
James Y. Kerr II, President, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group

Committee Members Present

Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Thomas R. Carper (D-DE)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)
Ranking Member James M. Inhofe (R-OK)
Larry E. Craig (R-ID)

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project (Eureka County, Nevada) began about 25 years ago, when the Department of Energy (DOE) signed into a contract with nuclear power plants wherein the plants paid one tenth of one cent per kilowatt hour produced for the removal and permanent storage of the nuclear waste the plants created. Additional costs needed to pay for the design, construction, and maintenance of the repository are from public funds, ultimately paid by the taxpayers. The opening of the repository has been pushed back from its initial date of 1998 to an estimated date of 2017. So far the repository has cost over $11 billion, been delayed by decades, caused multiple lawsuits, and faced a great deal of opposition in Nevada and Washington, DC. This hearing is intended to monitor progress of the DOE application for construction of the repository and the EPA guidelines for radiation levels around the repository, both of which have been delayed for years, and neither of which is complete.

Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has had "serious concerns" about the safety of the Yucca Mountain repository for years. Shipping large amounts of nuclear waste presents a danger to the public, as does the possibility of waste leaking through and contaminating groundwater. She stated that wasted money is a big issue, "but how much is your grandchild's life worth?" She asserted that it is "irrelevant" whether a person is for nuclear energy, this issue is about safety.

Ranking member James M. Inhofe (R-OK) disapproved of the repository for other reasons. He believes that billions of dollars have been "wasted" by the DOE "refusing" to proceed with action and it is time to "get on with this process" of creating the repository.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) stated clearly that "Yucca Mountain is not a safe place" to store spent nuclear fuel due to the "considerable seismic activity" in the area. She noted that in September of 2007 a fault line was found underneath part of the site, hundreds of feet away from where it was thought to be. Initially the site was chosen because it has the correct geologic structure to hold waste safely. But Clinton asserted that through the decades this has proved not to be true, and now the DOE has tried to engineer its way around the problems rather than find a site that will work as planned. She said that "we need to find long term storage solution" but "Yucca Mountain is not the answer." Future generations will have to live with these decisions for hundreds of thousands of years, so it is time for the U.S. to "start over and assemble our best scientific minds" to find a safe solution and not settle for an "incomplete application for a flawed site through a rushed and incoherent process."

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) testified of the importance of clean nuclear energy to the U.S. economy. In order to increase nuclear power in the U.S., power plants need reliable permanent storage for waste products. He also stated that South Carolina has been transporting nuclear waste for years without any problems. He warned that if Yucca Mountain repository does not open as planned in 2012 it will stall development of new plants, keep polluting coal plants open longer, and put the U.S. at a "competitive disadvantage." If a solution cannot be found to continue with the repository, $11billion goes "down the drain" and 30 years have been wasted.

Senator John Ensign (R-NV) gave testimony that nuclear waste is safely contained in dry casks for 100 years and there is no rush to build the repository simply because it was chosen decades ago. Ensign continued that Yucca Mountain's "dirty little secret" is that even if it is completed, a second repository of equal size will need to be built to store all the expected nuclear waste. He asserted that "Yucca Mountain is never going to be completed" and it is "irresponsible" to continue to fund the project.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) testified that Nevada has been fighting the project for over 20 years, but the entire country would be affected. Spent nuclear fuel would be shipped across the country to Yucca Mountain, creating a moving target for terrorists out of the highly hazardous waste. Reid believes that the "EPA has cast sound science aside in favor of politics" because it has not finalized the necessary environmental regulations for radiation around Yucca Mountain and does not seem determined to finish before the DOE application is due to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He cited a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Yucca Mountain revealing changing timelines, "secret" meetings, and false information plaguing the project. The EPA will not finish its environmental standard before the DOE application date although part of the application is supposed to show how the DOE will meet the EPA standard. Reid concluded that Yucca Mountain is "government at its worst."

Senator Thomas R. Carper (D-DE) said the government should have offered something in return for building a nuclear waste storage area so a state would see a repository as an economic boon. Since Yucca Mountain may never open, another site may be needed. If so, the government must find a community which will welcome the economic investment of a "21st century Manhattan Project." Reid responded that the original plan was to pick a state solely based on its geologic formations to protect the public from the waste. But when the DOE found that the geology in Yucca Mountain was not acceptable, they started building a "sleeve" inside the rock to hold waste rather than find an area that was suitable.

The second witness panel included representatives from the three government bodies overseeing the project, the DOE, EPA, and NRC. Edward F. Sproat III of the DOE testified first. He said the idea of the government "rushing" to finish the project is a misconception. The project itself is almost 30 years old, and the DOE application is six years old. He stated that they are "now at that point that the science is ready" to build the repository. Sproat refuted the terrorism issue, stating that there have been hundreds of safe trips of nuclear waste by rail and truck with no "fundamental technological barriers." Currently 121 different sites in 31 states store spent nuclear fuel, and 21 million people live within 75 miles of these sites. Sproat asked which is an easier target for terrorism, the stationary material, or the secretly moved, guarded material.

Robert J. Meyers of the EPA testified on the delay related to environmental standards. He stated that the EPA developed standards for public health regarding the release of nuclear material in June of 2001. These standards limited individual exposure to 15 milligrams per year, the most stringent value in the U.S. today. But these standards covered the time period up to 10,000 years after closure of the repository, which was found not to be good enough. The new standards that are being created will cover one million years after closure. The standards were open for public comment, and over 2,000 comments were submitted and reviewed. These comments will be published with the final standards.

Michael Weber from the NRC testified on the review process that will be used for the DOE application. Because the NRC must review the application, it currently takes no position on whether spent nuclear fuel can be stored permanently and safely at Yucca Mountain. Weber stated that the NRC will base its decision on a "comprehensive, unbiased" technical safety review of the application, for which the NRC is well qualified. After this review the NRC will hold formal, public, evidentiary hearings. Approval or disproval will be based upon the review and hearings.

Senator Clinton was concerned that the NRC will begin a review of the DOE license application to meet EPA standards when the standards are not final. She asked Meyers when the EPA standards would be complete, to which he replied "our hope is to get that done soon." Clinton then addressed Sproat, asking why the DOE was "rushing" to finalize their application without the final EPA standard. Sproat replied that most of the standards that need to be addressed in the application have been in place for almost a decade. The one "last piece" of the EPA standards that is not complete is the level of radiation that must be maintained for one million years after closure of the repository. Clinton was concerned that the delays show the EPA may have to "mangle science" to reach a "preconceived outcome" set by the Administration. Weber replied that it was ideal to have all standards set before the application is reviewed, and the NRC cannot finish the review until all standards are complete. But they can and will begin the review process with a partial application once it is submitted.

Senator Carper asked if there are a sufficient number of commissioners at the NRC to review this application while maintaining over 100 running power plants in the U.S. and reviewing applications for new power plants. Carper stressed the need to be "as close to perfect" as possible because "there is no margin for error" with nuclear safety. Weber agreed, adding that the NRC has had success with bringing in new personnel and transferring a large amount of information, scenarios, data, skills, and models from the people that have worked at the NRC "all their lives."

Chairwoman Boxer asked how much of the repository design is complete. Sproat said the DOE will not submit an "incomplete" license as some have suggested because it will not be accepted if the DOE does not follow all regulations. He said that the engineering and design work was about 30-40% complete, but that by "complete" he means it is completely designed and ready to build. That level of detail is not necessary and would be a waste of time and money at this point. When Chairwoman Boxer asked if it was typical for the NRC to receive applications that are 35% complete Weber responded that it was, depending on what parts of the application were done.

Senator Carper asked about the possibility of nuclear waste recycling and its possible effects on a waste repository. Sproat said there is "no doubt in my mind" that spent nuclear fuel will become an energy source, but it is unclear when technological advancements will make it economically beneficial to recycle nuclear waste for fuel. He noted that Yucca Mountain regulations require that the DOE retain capability to remove waste if needed, for example to recycle deposited waste when technology allows. But he added that there will still be a large amount of waste that is not recyclable and will need permanent storage.

Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General of Nevada, testified that Yucca Mountain is an "unsafe, physically unsuitable" place for the repository. She asserted that many "critical" parts of the design will not be complete by the filing date and thus will not be in the initial application, including the design of the waste canisters that will hold spent fuel. She stated that the NRC and the DOE should not hold themselves to an "artificially-set" date when it could cause health and security problems.

James Y. Kerr II from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) testified that he "accepts and supports" Nevada's challenge of the licensing of Yucca Mountain. Kerr asserted that the nuclear waste fund money that should go towards Yucca Mountain has been diverted for "other budgetary purposes." He claimed that $29 billion has been collected, and only $9 billion has been spent on the repository building process. He demanded it is "past time for the process to move forward."

Ken Cook testified for the Environmental Working Group. He stated his concern for the "rush to judgment" about Yucca Mountain. The United States public has a "fundamental right" to know the potential harm from thousands of shipments of nuclear waste across the country. Cook said millions of residents live along the planned waste transportation paths, but the DOE has not informed them. Cook asserted that transporting waste "expands the danger" and does not reduce it. He added that if the NRC will be approving new nuclear power plant licenses they are allowing more waste to be created before there is a solution to the long-term storage problem.

Senators and witnesses expressed concern about the many delays and budget changes to the Yucca Mountain repository, however, the greatest concern of both groups seems to be safety. Supporters of Yucca Mountain assert that the transport and subsequent storage in the repository will be safer from terrorist threats than keeping waste on-site at power plants. But opponents contest that moving the waste is hazardous, and once in the repository there is an additional risk of groundwater contamination. The DOE reports it will submit its license application to the NRC in June 2008, even if the EPA environmental standards for the project are not complete. This timing troubles many senators and witnesses, but the three governmental organizations involved (the EPA, DOE, and NRC) assume that the application will not be approved unless it shows that the DOE can safely build the repository to function to the necessary standards.

A link to witness testimony can be found here.

A link to the full text of S.37 can be found here.

A link to the GAO report on Yucca Mountain can be found here.



Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety
Hearing on "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Reactor Oversight Process"

October 3, 2007



Panel I
The Honorable Dale Klein, Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Gregory B. Jaczko, Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Peter B. Lyons, Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Panel II
Mark E. Gaffigan, Acting Director, Natural Resources and Environment, United States Government Accountability Office
David Lochbaum, Director, Nuclear Safety Project, Union of Concerned Scientists
Marvin Fertel, Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer, Nuclear Energy Institute

Committee Members Present

Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-DE)
Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD)
Ranking Member George V. Voinovich (R-OH)
Larry E. Craig (R-ID)
James M. Inhofe (R-OK)
Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Bernard Sanders (I-VT)

Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-DE) stated that the purpose of this hearing is to review the appropriateness of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) reactor oversight process. The hearing is timely because applications are arriving for the first new power plants to be built in decades. Over 30 new nuclear power plants may be built in the next 7-8 years, but Chairman Carper asserted that the 104 currently operating plants are still the most important. He believes the reactor oversight process is the "cornerstone" of the NRC, and its goal should always be the prevention and correction of reactor problems. Thus he is troubled that 11 plants in the U.S. have problems with parts of their plants that are deemed "necessary" for operation. Additionally, some plants have more minor problems that will not go away. Carper said he hopes to learn what the NRC will do about these issues.

Ranking Member George V. Voinovich (R-OH) wants to ensure that the NRC is "aggressively preparing" for regulation of new nuclear power plants for the first time in 30 years. Voinovich stressed that "human capital will be a significant challenge" when staffing these new plants. He suggested looking to academia and labor unions for the necessary workforce. Finding people qualified to fill these positions at new and old plants is essential to ensure the safety of the American public.

Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) agreed that we must "go the extra mile" to guarantee the safety of all nuclear power plants. He said the safety problems caused by aging and increased power needs are reason for concern. Sanders also asserted that the committee needs to carefully asses his bill to amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (S.1008). This bill would allow state governments to request third party inspectors, instead of NRC inspectors, to assess the operations of nuclear power plants. Sanders believes this bill would allow for less biased inspections.

Senator Larry E. Craig (R-ID) stated that nuclear is a "critical" clean energy alternative for dealing with climate change concerns. He believes that with "cooperative oversight", the U.S. will see a new generation of nuclear power plants built in this country. Last week marked the first new nuclear power plant license submitted in more than 30 years, and many more applications are expected in the next few years. Craig asserted that nuclear energy could be as important to the economy as the high-tech movement was, offering hundreds of billions of dollars in jobs and revenue.

Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) stated that the "only and best" way to meet standards for clean energy is with nuclear power. In Georgia and other southern states, there is not enough wind to make wind power a viable option. Solar energy is also not economically feasible in the region. Nuclear can solve some major energy problems in the U.S. and is needed to make the U.S. competitive in the global economy.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) began his comments by applauding how the U.S. Navy has "never had a single nuclear accident since the 1950s". He was particularly interested in options for the disposal of nuclear waste. He also agreed with Isakson that wind and solar energy were not efficient energy sources in the southeast, and that nuclear is the best option for clean energy. Senator Alexander said that currently 70% of clean energy and 20% of total energy produced in the U.S. is nuclear. In the future, he believes America needs "aggressive conservation" and increased nuclear energy capacity.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) wants the U.S. to obtain energy independence for domestic and economic security. He is also concerned about the environment, and believes nuclear energy is a clean alternative. His home state of Maryland relies on nuclear for 28% of its total energy use. But Cardin warned that safety was of utmost importance. He reminded the committee that in 1987, control room operators of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania were found asleep at the job. He called this lack of concern for public safety "unacceptable". Cardin feels additional steps need to be taken to protect the public.

The Honorable Dale Klein, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), gave the testimony for the NRC. He defended the NRC review process, stating that in fact it is an independent review of the safety of a nuclear plant. He said this week the NRC received the first of five new power plant applications expected in 2007, marking the start of a new period of nuclear advancement in the U.S. He reassured the committee that the NRC has been preparing for the increased demands this will create. Klein also wanted to address a few incidents the NRC has dealt with recently.

The first was a test of NRC security by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO created a fake business, and through this business obtained licenses for purchasing radioactive materials. The GAO was then able to modify the licenses to obtain larger quantities of radioactive materials than they had been approved for. The only portion of their security test that did not work was when the GAO attempted to obtain a license from the state of Maryland, which said it would require a visit to the business first. Klein said this test showed a "weakness" in its licensing process for "lower risk" materials, which the NRC quickly addressed. The NRC now requires on-site reviews of all businesses requesting licenses for radioactive materials.

The second incident occurred in March 2006, when a plant in Erwin, Tennessee leaked highly enriched uranium from its protected storage container into the plant itself. Congress was not informed of this incident until May 2007, during the NRC "report to Congress on Abnormal Occurrences in 2006". Now the NRC alerts Congress quickly of any incidents, and has also increased and expedited communication with the public when necessary. The NRC has responded to these and other reoccurring problems at nuclear power plants by changing its reactor oversight process to include more inspections, to focus those inspections on problem areas, and to increase cooperative work with the plant to identify and remedy the problem.

Chairman Carper asked the panel how the NRC planned to better identify potential problems before they occur. Klein responded that the NRC was trying to find out what predictors are "red flags". Once they find a problem, the NRC looks back to see what they should have asked or looked at in order to see the problem coming. Senator Sanders addressed the August 21, 2007 collapse of a power plant cooling tower in his state of Vermont. A week after the collapse, the plant was shutdown due to clogged cooling pipes. Sanders asked the panel if they would have confidence in the NRC, because "Vermont does not". Klein's response was that the cooling tower was not part of the safety system. He also said the new, more rigorous inspection procedures will be used from now on.

Senator Craig inquired about the additional staffing that new procedures and additional plants will require. Peter B. Lyons, NRC Commissioner, responded that the NRC was hiring new staff to meet the needs created by the planned power plants. Last year, over 400 new employees were hired, and currently the NRC has a net hiring goal of 200 people per year.

Senator Voinovich asked if the NRC identified great training programs or "safety cultures" in certain power plants that can be models for the industry. Klein responded that they do not because it is not a regulatory requirement. This issue could be looked at more definitively, but is controversial for them to cover because it overlaps with management issues, and the NRC cannot regulate management.

Senator Sanders said he was "not convinced" the NRC knows what to do with nuclear waste. Klein responded that most sites have storage now, which is low risk and will be good for 100 years. When asked about the terrorist threat this storage may pose, Klein said that the NRC has looked into those issues.

The second panel provided an external review of the NRC reactor oversight process. David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project created by the Union of Concerned Scientists, testified first. He presented the results of an NRC assessment using guidelines created by the Nuclear Energy Agency. Of the four attributes tested, the NRC passed one, failed two and received no assessment for the fourth. The NRC received a passing grade for the attribute "Ensures that an acceptable level of safety is being maintained by the regulated operating organizations". However, the NRC failed the attribute "Takes appropriate actions to prevent degradation of safety and to promote safety improvements". Lochbaum stated that since 1966, there have been 51 power plant shut-downs lasting over one year to restore proper safety levels. Mr. Lochbaum was disappointed in the lack of "aggressive and forceful regulation" by the NRC, and referred to the organization as a "meek and mild enabler of non-conforming behavior". The NRC's second failed attribute is "Performs its regulatory functions in a timely and cost-effective manner as well as in a manner that ensures the confidence of the operating organizations, the general public, and the government". Some states are attempting to assign independent safety reviewers to check power plants because they do not trust the review of the NRC. Lochbaum also said that his organization supports bill S.1008, which would allow states to request independent safety assessments. The fourth attribute, which the NRC neither passed nor failed, was "Strives for continuous improvements in its performance". Mr. Lochbaum concluded that the NRC will not be able to improve until new management brings change to the organization.

Marvin Fertel of the Nuclear Energy Institute provided additional review of the reactor oversight process. He said the process was "evolving". One major step has been the increased dissemination of information. Now all assessment data is posted online and available to the public. Another step is increased review objectivity, which has helped improve safety performance. The 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report included recommendations for the oversight process. One major recommendation is increased emergency preparedness and public warning systems. Another is a more structured and prevalent safety culture, preferably with a written component that could be used by power plants. Mr. Fertel asserted it is essential that the NRC continues to review its process and its outcomes.

GAO's Mark E. Gaffigan reviewed the results of their report on the reactor oversight process, which has been used since 2000. The report covered how the NRC was implementing the process, the results of the process, and continuing efforts to improve the process. Major recommendations of the study included more quickly and effectively identifying "declining safety performance" and better staffing and processes to prepare for the increased workload created by the new license applications. Mr. Gaffigan is "hopeful" that future review of the process will show improvement.

Chairman Carper asked what recommendations the GAO had for the NRC to better identify and address safety issues. Gaffigan believes safety culture is one important aspect. Another is current performance indicators, which he feels are actually lagging indicators that do not identify problems early enough. Senator Voinovich asked why companies objected to the creation and enforcement of safety culture standards. Mr. Fertel said the industry feels it is imposing its own safety culture already, and that the NRC would be regulating management, which they do not want.

Senator Sanders listed a number of states that have requested independent assessment of power plants, and asked why these states have lost confidence in the reactor oversight process of the NRC. Mr. Lochbaum replied that the process was created well before September 11, 2001, and so its security checks were not up to date.

Chairman Carper then asked what the NRC can do to find and rectify problems earlier. Mr. Fertel admitted there is no "silver bullet" performance indicator, but said the new reactor oversight process worked "almost in real time", giving the NRC information more quickly so they can identify a safety decline much sooner.

Senator Voinovich wanted to know about nuclear waste storage facilities. He asked for information on lawsuits against the Energy Department for not providing the nuclear waste storage services for which they charged nuclear power plants. Mr. Fertel responded that all nuclear power companies have sued the government over this problem. He also said some central treatment and storage facilities would be beneficial for plants that are close to the site if they can be built and maintained.

All witnesses, even NRC members, admit the NRC has made mistakes in the past and still must work to instill confidence in the industry and the public. Some panelists focused on the good the reactor oversight process has done since its implementation in 2000. Others stressed recent power plant accidents and other problems still plaguing the commission. It is unclear whether the new staff and procedures implemented for the increase in reactor applications will encourage greater confidence in the NRC.

A link to the text of S.1008 "To amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954" can be found here.

A link to the GAO report "NRC Has Made Progress in Implementing Its Reactor Oversight and Licensing Processes but Continues to Face Challenges" can be found here.

A link to witness testimony and archive webcast can be found here.


Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Elizabeth Landau, 2007 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern, and Linda Rowan, Director of Government Affairs.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 22, 2007.