EPW Hearing Statement: Advanced Nuclear Technology: Safety and Associated Benefits of Licensing Accident Tolerant Fuels for Commercial Nuclear Reactors

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “Advanced Nuclear Technology: Safety and Associated Benefits of Licensing Accident Tolerant Fuels for Commercial Nuclear Reactors.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for convening this important hearing on advanced nuclear technologies, specifically accident tolerant fuels. I know my colleagues have heard me say this before, but I will say it again:  I believe there are few environmental challenges more serious than climate change and the extreme weather associated with it.  

“Our leading scientific agencies – like NOAA and NASA – tell us that climate change is causing rising global temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events; weather events like the massive Hurricane Florence, which is expected to strike the East Coast this week and threaten millions of Americans.   NOAA also tells us that extreme weather events that have cost our country more than $1 billion apiece have doubled in frequency over the past decade – with $425 billion in losses occurring over the last five years.  That’s $425 billion with a ‘B.’ Think about that. Whether it’s a drought, or a forest fire in the West, or a hurricane or a massive flood in the East, climate change results in lost income, damaged properties, and sadly, in some cases, lost lives.

“As we send up prayers for those who live in Florence’s path and who are preparing for this massive storm, our federal government has a moral responsibility, not only to help our communities be better prepared for climate-fueled events, but to also address the root causes of these events.

“To some of our friends across the aisle who are not yet ready to join the rest of us in addressing climate action, let me note that nuclear power is one of the many examples of how our nation can combat climate change and, at the same time, grow our economy.

“When nuclear power is produced responsibly, it does not emit carbon and it reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.  Our country can — and should — seize the opportunity to continue to use nuclear energy in our national energy mix.  Today, nuclear power provides about twenty percent of our nation’s energy, as well as sixty percent of our carbon-free electricity, but as we know, the nuclear industry still faces many challenges.

“We need to make sure reactors operate well and safely, especially in the event of extreme weather.  Take what happened in Fukushima: nuclear power can lead to devastating circumstances if the proper safety precautions are not in place, not up to date, or not adhered to.  Safety must always be the top priority in our country’s approach to improving nuclear energy. Today’s costs for safety precautions at existing reactors – along with the costs of construction, operation and maintenance — can be expensive, especially when compared to the costs other sources of energy, such as natural gas.  

“Fortunately, recent advancements in science allow us to build and operate advanced nuclear technology that is safer, cleaner and cheaper. And if we are smart, we will replace our aging nuclear reactors with this new technology. As we will hear today, advanced nuclear technology could improve the safety and efficiency of our existing reactors over the next five years. Using new materials for our nuclear fuel rods in our existing reactors – known as ‘accident tolerant fuel’ – may allow our existing reactors to avoid the danger of overheating during emergency situations, which is what happened at Fukushima. 

“At the same time, accident tolerant fuel could enable our current fleet of nuclear reactors to run more efficiently and, therefore, be more cost competitive.  This is situation in which it’s possible to do well and do good at the same time. My colleagues know that I love win-wins. I think they do, too!  And accident tolerant fuel has the potential to be a great win, not only for fight against climate change, but for industry, for American jobs and, most importantly, for the safety of the American people.  We might want to think of it as a ‘win-win-win-win.’

“As companies make advances in technology, we need to make sure that our regulatory framework keeps pace.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) still considered the world’s gold standard of nuclear regulatory agencies.  As science and technology evolve, so too must the NRC. However, as I said before, we can’t afford to cut corners when it comes to nuclear safety. I’m interested in hearing today how the federal government can ensure all the design testing needed is completed expeditiously to help inform the NRC licensing process.

“We also need to make sure that the NRC has the resources it needs to review these new technologies and to ensure that our current nuclear reactor fleet remains safe.  In closing, let me add that I strongly believe Congress has a critical role to play in ensuring that our nation invests wisely in clean energy. That includes finding ways to support advanced nuclear technologies which allow our reactors to be safer, more resilient and more efficient. 

“Advances in nuclear energy can help us attain a more nurturing environment for job creation along with cleaner air for our people and planet.  That’s a pretty good combination, one which most Americans would like to see us embrace, and I hope we’ll do just that!”