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RELATIONSHIP OF THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION TO THE NUCLEAR INDUSTRY
THURSDAY, JUNE 11, 1987
House Of Representatives,
The subcommittee met at 9:15 a.m. in room 1324 of the Longworth House Office Building, Hon. Sam Gejdenson (chairman of the subcommittee) presiding.
Mr. Gejdenson. This morning we will begin the first of what I expect to be a series of oversight hearings on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. My interest in nuclear power and the NRC is longstanding. I firmly believe that nuclear power is an important energy resource in this country. I also believe the future success of nuclear power depends on American people having confidence in the nuclear industry and those that regulate it. We in Connecticut have four operating nuclear powerplants with an exemplary record.
It is for this reason that I am increasingly concerned about the NRC. I am concerned that the NRC may not be maintaining an arm's-length regulatory posture with the commercial power industry. I am concerned that the NRC may have in some critical areas abdicated its role to regulate. I am also concerned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may not be allowing its investigators the latitude, independence and support necessary to perform their essential functions. In short, it is the NRC's charge to oversee the nuclear industry, not to overlook problems in that industry.
Nowhere is there greater need for close scrutiny by regulators and investigators than in the nuclear industry. This is not because those in the industry are bad people. Most of those who run the commercial nuclear power industry are truly committed people. Close scrutiny is needed because so much is at stake. Due to the inherent danger of nuclear powerplants, there is little margin for error. Nuclear power is not a forgiving technology. We are dealing with a technology both delicate and devastating, which can affect the health, welfare, and indeed the lives of millions of people.
The NRC has recognized that human error, the improper operating of complex equipment, is involved in virtually all nuclear accidents. It is therefore imperative that we do everything possible to minimize the chance of errors of this nature.
So when we discover, as we have, evidence of drug and alcohol abuse at a number of nuclear powerplants, it is indeed frightening. If only one powerplant operator is drunk or only one employee having access to vital parts of the reactor is under the influence of drugs, it is cause for significant concern. Yet, there is reason to believe that the abuse we have uncovered only represents the tip of the iceberg. This is a scary proposition. And what is worse is that the NRC has turned its back on the problem. It has abdicated its authority to regulate and its responsibility to regulate the nuclear industry—even when utilities have shown that they are unreliable in protecting against drug and alcohol abuse.
In what can only be termed a stunning sequence of events, the subcommittee has learned of two separate cases in which the NRC referred multiple reports of drug and alcohol abuse at each of two utilities to the utilities themselves. In both cases, officials to whom the utility in turn assigned responsibility to pursue the reports were soon in legal trouble themselves—one on drug charges and two for receiving kickbacks.
If the NRC can shut down a nuclear powerplant because employees were sleeping on the job, how can it justify failing to investigate multiple reports of drug and alcohol abuse? If the NRC can perceive that employees falling asleep represents an immediate threat to safety, how can it refuse to clearly require that utilities report to the NRC if plant operators are found drunk at the control panels? And how can the NRC tie its own hands and effectively preclude enforcement against a utility which has failed to take preventive measures to protect against alcohol and drug abuse? This inconsistency in approach hardly contributes to the credibility of the NRC.
Though drug and alcohol abuse in nuclear power plants and the NRC's treatment, or nontreatment, of the problem is only one of the subject areas of today's hearing, it is obviously an important issue. We will also address other notable examples of the NRC's coziness with the industry it is supposed to be regulating at arm's length, and the NRC's resistance to independent and objective investigations of its licensees.
To ensure that the nuclear industry is strong, we must be honest with ourselves. We must not be afraid to draw a clear line between regulator and the regulated. We must demand that the regulator be the one who determines the standards which the industry must comply with, and must take appropriate tough actions for failure to meet those standards.
In the long run, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not doing the nuclear industry any favors if it is lax in setting standards or enforcing them. The NRC's role, at least in part, is to promote the strength of the nuclear industry through fair but tough regulation. The NRC's role is not to act as an advocate for the nuclear industry.
Finally, we must not be afraid to have truly independent investigations of actions of those inside the NRC and the utilities they regulate. Whether an individual commissioner is involved, the NRC as a whole, or the nuclear industry, there must be an understanding of the usefulness and importance of objective scrutiny of the way in which we conduct our business. It can only serve to strengthen the process and to foster the trust of the American people in the nuclear power industry if we take our role seriously.
One final note. As chairman of this subcommittee, I intend to swear in all witnesses who come before us. While it has not been the practice of this committee in the past to do so, it is my intention to do this with all witnesses, and in so doing with the hope that everyone understands that we are not attempting to impugn the integrity of any of the witnesses that come before us today. But for 6 years I sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where I still sit, and as we watch the Iran-Contra hearings, it is ever more clear that a number of witnesses before our Foreign Affairs Committee lied to the U.S. Congress.
Two weeks ago, I asked the House counsel what could be done about an individual impersonating a Catholic priest before the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I was informed because we failed to have him take the oath of office, that the worst we could do is try to bring him up on an untested charge of lying to Congress.
I don't say that for these witnesses that are here before me today, as I have every confidence in this panel and I believe the others that will come before us, that they will tell us the truth. But I do not want to sit through as many hearings as I have on Foreign Affairs, to find out years later that the Congress has been misled, either intentionally or unintentionally, by either the administration or witnesses for the industry.
So I would ask all of you to rise now and take the oath.
Mr. Gejdenson. As is customary, your full statements will be placed in the record and we will give you an opportunity to summarize them or present them in any manner that you wish.
[Prepared statement of Mr. Gejdenson follows:]