November 13, 2019
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) senior member of the Environmental and Public Works (EPW) Committee, questioned witnesses at an EPW hearing to receive testimony on Preserving and Expanding Clean, Reliable Nuclear Power: U.S. Commercial Nuclear Reactor Performance Trends and Safety Initiatives.
Witnesses included Admiral Robert Willard, President and Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Nuclear Power Operations; Dr. Peter Lyons, Commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005-2009, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy from 2010-2015 at the Department of Energy; Dr. Edwin Lyman, Acting Director of the Nuclear Safety Project, Union of Concerned Scientists.
Inhofe: First of all, I'm glad that we're having this meeting. It's important to reiterate that nuclear power generates over double the electricity compared with wind and solar and most Americans don't know that. However, Willard, when I chaired this committee, I chaired the subcommittee on the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee in the 1990s, and at that time the issues we scrutinized were how the NRC conducted oversight. Now, you've heard some comments that were being made. The reactor oversight process, Admiral Willard, can you elaborate just briefly and maybe give a couple of examples of how safety has improved during that time frame?
Willard: Yes sir and thank you for the question. The reactor oversight process and obviously INPO is very familiar with it. Again, as an independent but complimentary safety and reliability organization, INPO is contributing to many of the factors that strengthen overall reactor safety as it would be indicated in the oversight activities of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In answering the question of improvements over time, I would draw your attention back to the curve at my right and that is actually an indicator that contains 12 areas of safety and reliability factors that are combined to yield that curve, and all have improved in the time frame that you allude to; from 1990 to present. They range from capability factor, which has been mentioned earlier and online reliability, to safety injection and unplanned scrams, to fuel reliability, chemistry effectiveness, all the way down to industrial accident rate. Again, a dozen different areas specific to safety and reliability of our nuclear reactors that have all undergone vast improvement over time to have achieved the levels of performance that the industry’s achieved today.
Inhofe: Okay, that's good. Thank you very much.
Dr. Lyons, I've used the same quote that you used in your opening statement, no in your written statement, when you quoted Secretary Perry as saying, "energy security is national security." I use that quite often in my chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Would you expand on why access to nuclear energy is vital to national security? Then also, as you brought out, the problem is out there with Russia and China, their aggressive behavior recently.
Lyons: Thank you very much for the question Sen. Inhofe. Certainly the reliability and resilience provided by nuclear power to our grid is an element of national security. But, nuclear energy and nuclear power also is critical in supporting our nuclear Navy and our nuclear weapons program. The infrastructure that underpins our nuclear Navy and weapons programs is fundamental to the nuclear power program and as the nuclear power program is, as the commercial number of plants decreases, I fear that we are lessening our support to those key national security elements. I think I mentioned in my testimony that I find it very interesting that not only Secretary Perry has made this set of comments but, the previous energy secretary, Doctor Moniz, who now is involved with the Energy Futures Initiative, has authored a document, in fact the title, I wrote it down, was "The US Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler." It’s a very, very strong statement, and the roll of nuclear energy in underpinning our national security is very strong.
As for Russia and China, certainly Russia at the moment, is extremely aggressive. China is focusing on their internal domestic program, but starting to move into the international regime. An interesting statistic is that since 1997, if you look at construction of plants and plants in construction, domestically, the United States—that number is three—and two of those are the continuing construction in Georgia. Russia—that number is 15. China—that number is 39. In other words, tremendous focus on the domestic program, especially in China. But, if you look internationally, Russia is by far the leader internationally. In fact that same number internationally for Russia would be 24 plants either constructed or in construction internationally. In the past, when the United States designs dominated internationally, we were able to set the international security, and non-proliferation goals for the world. As Russia takes over that international leadership, by their aggressive international outreach, we are, in my view, potentially ceding our leadership in non-proliferation and safety to Russia and I believe eventually, China. In my view, that is of great concern and I would hope Congress would look at actions that could allow our U.S. nuclear industry to compete on an equal footing with Russia and China. That starts with a strong domestic industry.
Inhofe: That's great and I appreciate that comment very much. I have some questions for the record on that subject for you. Thank you and thank you, Mr. Chairman.