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Press Releases :: May 13, 2011

Democrats Weigh the True Costs and Risks of Nuclear Energy Post-Fukushima

(Washington, DC)  -- Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittees on Investigations & Oversight and Energy & Environment held a joint hearing on Nuclear Energy Risk Management.

There are 104 operating nuclear power plants in the United States that provide roughly 20-
percent of the nation’s electricity.  No new nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S. for the past thirty years, since the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.  Over the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in building a new generation of nuclear power plants in the U.S., and a renewed push for more subsidies to underwrite this construction.  Public support for this policy has eroded as a consequence of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Japan that resulted in the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.  The partial meltdown and spent nuclear fuel fires reminded the world of the potential catastrophic consequences of nuclear power. 

Members and witnesses at today’s hearing pointed out that the nuclear power industry has received billions of dollars in federal subsidies from the U.S. government for nearly 60 years, yet the industry is still unable to stand on its own two feet.  “Despite decades of support, nuclear power plants are still unable to operate competitively in the U.S. energy market,” said Representative Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. “Now, we are being asked for still more subsidies to build another generation of plants.  The public gravy train has got to come to a stop for this now mature industry,” she said.

These taxpayer subsidies have helped the nuclear power industry to profit handsomely for years.  Six of the leading nuclear power companies that own a total of 51 operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. made nearly $16 billion in profits in the past two years alone, according to their own annual reports.

Representative Brad Miller (D-NC), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment added his views.  “I am a cautious, reluctant supporter of nuclear technology.  But we must acknowledge the real costs and give other technologies a fair shake at competing,” said Miller.  “This industry would not have been born were it not for government investment, and 60 years later, it would not survive without the government propping it up.” 

Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a member of both Subcommittees, asked the NRC witness, Dr. Brian Sheron, Director, Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research whether or not any of the new nuclear reactor designs presented zero risk of a potential nuclear accident.  “I don’t think there are any designs right now that are failsafe,” said Dr. Sheron.

One witness, Mr. David Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that federal subsidies to nuclear power companies - including the liability limitation and indemnification known as “Price-Anderson” - encourages them to take increased financial and safety risks and ultimately undermines the safety of U.S. nuclear reactors. 

The NRC’s oversight of the nuclear industry has been criticized in the past, including a lengthy New York Times story published just last Sunday.  Serious safety problems at U.S. nuclear power plants occur much more often than the public may suspect.  Lochbaum authored a report that identified 14 “near misses” at U.S. nuclear power plants in 2010 alone. 

The NRC and nuclear industry have often claimed that new regulations imposed in the wake of the reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island have increased safety at U.S. nuclear plants considerably, and they have pointed to the implementation of the “severe accident management guidelines” now required by plant operators. But Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and renowned nuclear safety expert said that the NRC teaches its inspectors that they are not authorized to assess or enforce compliance with these guidelines.  In essence, these management guidelines could include a cover sheet with a thousand blank pages and no one would ever know.  “If NRC continues to rely on these guidelines to protect public health, it must evaluate their effectiveness,” said Lochbaum. “It would be too late and too costly to find out after a U.S. nuclear plant disaster that the plant’s severe accident management guideline was missing a few key steps or contained a handful of missteps,” he said.

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