EPW Hearing Statement: Preserving and Expanding Clean, Reliable Nuclear Power: U.S. Commercial Nuclear Reactor Performance Trends and Safety Initiatives
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “Preserving and Expanding Clean, Reliable Nuclear Power: U.S. Commercial Nuclear Reactor Performance Trends and Safety Initiatives.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:
“Just last Friday, I had the opportunity to deliver the keynote address at a Change of Command Ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia aboard the USS Delaware, a nuclear-powered, fast-attack Virginia-class submarine that will be commissioned at the Port of Wilmington in Delaware.
“Our country has been building nuclear-powered vessels for a long time now. In fact, the U.S. Navy began to explore the potential of harnessing nuclear power aboard its vessels shortly after the end of the Second World War. Our first-ever nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was commissioned in 1954 and sent to sea in 1955. By the 1960s, the U.S. Navy had dozens of nuclear-powered submarines either under way or under construction. In those early days, our country invested in nuclear-powered submarines, ships, and aircraft carriers in an ultimately successful effort to stem the tide of communism around the globe.
“Today, we face different kind of threat, one that is a matter of survival for our planet. And just as nuclear power has been enormously important to our national defense, we need a strong, viable and safe fleet of nuclear power plants to combat a different kind of threat – the growing threat of climate change – and the extreme weather and rising seas that come with it.
“Today, there are 96 operating nuclear reactors throughout America that are running more efficiently than ever before and producing clean, carbon-free electricity. In fact, 50 percent of all of the world’s carbon-free electricity comes from nuclear power. And, compared to other industrial sectors, the U.S. nuclear industry remains one of the safest in the world. That’s in large part because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, continues to be the world’s gold standard for nuclear regulatory agencies.
“Unfortunately, though, the nuclear industry continues to feel the pinch of the markets as it struggles to compete with other less expensive ways of generating electricity in America. Since 2013, nine reactors have been retired here and, by 2025, an additional ten nuclear power plants are expected to be retired. Most of these facilities are closing due to economic reasons—not because of overly burdensome regulations.
“Despite that, these closures and other economic concerns have led some in the nuclear industry to suggest that we target safety regulations in ways which may well undermine the ability of the NRC to continue to be the gold standard of nuclear power regulators in the world.
“To be clear, I am open to improving efficiencies within the NRC and the plants they oversee. For example, just last Congress, I worked with our chairman and all of our EPW colleagues to pass legislation that restructured the NRC payment structure, increasing transparency and leveling the playing field for those paying NRC dues. However, as someone who supports the nuclear industry, I implore my colleagues, along with the NRC and the entire nuclear industry, to keep safety a top priority. Streamlining safety regulations for the sake of streamlining could actually hurt –not help – the nuclear industry that we need if we’re to turn back the threat that climate change poses to our planet and its inhabitants.
“We don’t have to go very far in history to see how cutting corners in nuclear safety can have devastating results. Less than a decade ago, a massive earthquake and tsunami led to the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. This was one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has ever seen—in a country known for nuclear safety, no less. The people of Japan are still recovering from this accident today. Around the world, public confidence in the nuclear industry has not fully recovered, either.
“The cruel irony is that some of the biggest lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident were things we already knew, such as:
- The importance of having an independent and transparent nuclear regulator;
- The importance of having a culture of safety at all our nuclear reactors; and,
- The importance of having defense in depth – layered, protective measures to help mitigate known and unknown threats.
“It’s been said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Fast forward to today, I am concerned that some of the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident are already being forgotten.
“At a time when we should be investing in next generation nuclear technologies, the last thing we should do is undermine safety. Yet some in the nuclear industry and the NRC seem willing to take risks that not only ignore lessons learned, but also fly in the face of common sense.
“For example, the NRC recently decided to change course on post-Fukushima protections – making some seismic and flooding protection requirements voluntary, rather than mandatory. The NRC is also considering weakening its reactor oversight process, with some in industry calling for self-inspections. Simply put, these actions do not make sense. If history is any indication, these changes could well end up being penny wise and pound foolish.
“Having said that, I am hopeful that today we will discuss how we can get the NRC back on track, and ensure the commission has all the tools necessary to keep our country’s nuclear power the safest in the world. I also hope we will have time today to discuss some of the investments and advances going forward in nuclear power that need to be made in order to ensure that nuclear energy remains an effective tool in our arsenal to power our country while combating the threat of climate crisis we face here at home and around the world.
“Our thanks to our witnesses for joining us here today. We look forward to your testimony and to the opportunity to have a timely and important conversation with respect to nuclear power in this country. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”