Subcommittees Evaluate Nuclear Energy R&D, Risk Management

May 13, 2011
Subcommittees Evaluate Nuclear Energy R&D, Risk Management

Washington D.C. – Today the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight (I&O) and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment (E&E) held a joint hearing to examine nuclear energy safety, risk assessment, public health protection, and associated scientific and technical policy issues in the United States, in light of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. 

The subcommittees heard from a diverse panel of experts, however, I&O Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) emphasized his continued frustration with the Administration because the Department of Energy (DOE) was unable to provide a witness.  “Let me be clear, this Committee is willing to work with the Administration to reach mutual accommodations, but it will not allow it to obstruct our oversight efforts,” Broun said. “This Administration’s arrogance continues to undermine its claims of transparency and openness, particularly when they fail to be accountable to Congress and the American people.”

In his opening remarks, E&E Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) echoed Rep. Broun’s disappointment with DOE.  Harris also discussed the need for nuclear power due to rapidly growing demand for electricity in the U.S.  “We have to get this electricity from somewhere,” Harris noted, “and nuclear energy provides a clean, safe, and affordable source of baseload power to meet this demand.” Harris also acknowledged that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are a reminder that producing nuclear energy is not without risk.  “We must take great care to appropriately manage these risks,” he said.

 Testifying today, Dr. Brian Sheron, Director of the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said that efforts are being made to address new concerns. “Our program of continuous improvement based on operating experience will include evaluation of the significant events in Japan and what we can learn from them,” Sheron said.  The NRC already has an extensive seismic research program and new information coming out of Japan will be utilized to reassess seismic hazards at existing U.S. plant locations.  Sheron said that “Although no immediate safety issue has been identified, the NRC will take action if our further analysis shows that safety improvements can be justified.”  When asked about the safety of existing U.S. nuclear plants, Sheron said there is no evidence that existing plants are not safe.

Witnesses and Members also condemned the lack of scientific basis underlying public health and safety-related communications from public officials.  Mr. Lake Barrett, Principal at LBarrett Consulting, LLC, discussed the unnecessary alarmism caused by the NRC’s recommendation that Japan evacuate all citizens within a 50 mile diameter of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactor.  Mr. Barrett called this conflicting advice “inappropriate,” and said that the NRC didn’t take into account conditions on the ground in Japan, right after the tsunami devastation.

Addressing public health concerns, Dr. John Boice, Scientific Director at the International Epidemiology Institute, said that the health consequences from radiation releases from the Fukushima plant “appear to be minimal and are of little importance with regard to the U.S. public.”  Along these lines, Chairman Harris focused on the need to be responsible when discussing potential radiological effects on public health.  Senior government officials were quick to encourage American citizens to stockpile potassium iodide pills due to detection of miniscule traces of radiation in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese disaster.  Dr. Boice said that these pills can have harmful results if they are unnecessarily taken. Chairman Harris stated that such alarmism “feeds unnecessary public fears about nuclear energy, potentially harming its future viability.”

The following witnesses testified today before the joint subcommittee panel:
Dr. Brian Sheron, Director, Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Mr. Lake Barrett, Principal, LBarrett Consulting, LLC
Dr. John Boice, Scientific Director, International Epidemiology Institute
Mr. Dave Lochbaum, Director, Nuclear Safety Project, Union of Concerned Scientists