EPW Hearing Statement: Legislative Hearing on the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “Legislative Hearing on the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for convening this hearing. Congress has an important role to play in ensuring that our nation invests wisely in nuclear energy, while at the same time maintaining our focus on safety. I believe today’s hearing is very timely, as the nuclear industry faces real challenges. The industry is at a crossroads. Which path the industry decides to take will have ramifications on our country and its citizens for decades to come.

Let me begin by noting that it’s important to examine the benefits – and drawbacks– of nuclear energy. First, and foremost, the energy from nuclear power plants helps curb our nation’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels and reduces air pollution emissions that threaten our health and climate. Second, nuclear energy can be an economic driver.  Many Americans may be unaware that the United States invented nuclear technology. In fact, for many years, our nation led the world in nuclear manufacturing, construction and production. The jobs and the economic benefits of this growth stayed here at home for the most part. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. If our country decides to retake its leadership in nuclear energy – and is successful in that endeavor – history has shown there will be economic benefits in the form of manufacturing and construction jobs. As it turns out, there are two test case examples in Georgia and South Carolina, where the construction of two new reactors in each of those states has provided thousands of good paying jobs and spurred economic development in the surrounding communities. 

“Despite all the benefits of nuclear power, I would be remiss not to mention some of the potential adverse consequences of nuclear energy. We have seen from serious incidents in places like Fukushima the damage that nuclear power can cause if the proper safety precautions are not in place, not up to date, or not adhered to. With nuclear energy, safety has been and must remain a top priority in the operation of nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, the costs of safety precautions – along with the costs of construction, operation and maintenance – of current nuclear reactors can be expensive, especially when compared to the costs other sources of energy, such as natural gas. In fact, some U.S. reactors are retiring sooner than expected due to market forces. At the same time, our country’s nuclear reactors are getting older and will need to be replaced in the years to come.

“Some people believe our nation’s nuclear success story is ending. They may be right, but I believe that success story may be getting its second wind. If we are smart, we will replace our aging nuclear reactors with new technology developed in this country that is safer, produces less spent fuel and is cheaper to build and operate. If we seize this opportunity, the U.S. can be a leader in nuclear energy again, reaping the economic benefits that flow from that leadership.

“I’m not the only one who sees this opportunity. U.S. companies have already invested an estimated $1.5 billion dollars in next generation nuclear technologies. Today, we will hear directly from General Atomics, a company that is investing in a design that is much smaller than current reactors, doesn’t need water for cooling, is able to use spent fuel as fuel, and is a passive design – so that it will shut down easily if a significant concern arises. As we will hear today, if this design works – this type of reactor may well be competitive in today’s energy markets. This technology – like the dozens of other types of nuclear energy technology that are being actively researched, developed and invested in today – still faces real material and design challenges before it is ready to be commercialized.

“I should also hasten to add that as companies, like General Atomics, make advances in the technology, we need to make sure that our regulatory framework can keep pace. The NRC is considered the world’s gold standard of nuclear regulatory agencies. However, as science and technology evolve, so too must the NRC. We also need to make sure that the NRC has the resources it needs to review these new technologies and ensure our current nuclear reactor fleet remains safe. At the same time, we must be conscious of how changes to the NRC fee structure might impact the funds required from taxpayers. It is also important to remember that this Administration wants to cut domestic spending to the bone, while increasing funding for defense and homeland security. If this Administration is successful, we may ultimately face a situation where there are insufficient taxpayer dollars available for the NRC to work on advanced nuclear energy issues and meet its other responsibilities. I don’t want to see that happen, and I suspect that neither do most of the members of this committee.

“In closing, I believe advances in nuclear energy can help us attain that more nurturing environment for job creation and cleaner air for our people and planet.  Let me again thank our Chairman and the cosponsors of the legislation before us for their work, the work of their staff, and for working closely with my staff.  We look forward to building on that close working relationship, and we look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on ways we might further improve that collaboration and this legislation.”