Remarks of Pete V. Domenici
Plenary Session Address Gordon Research
July 16, 2000
New London, New Hampshire
I appreciate the invitation to participate with you today
as you start this important conference. As you well know, the
subjects that you are exploring are very high on my list of
personal interests. Unfortunately, the pace of actions in the
Senate precludes my attendance.
It's been an interesting year for nuclear energy. For that
matter, it's been an interesting year to test our national
energy policy - or more specifically our absence of a national
energy policy. As stark evidence of that fact, we've
experienced tremendous swings in prices for oil-based products
over the last 18 months, gyrations that underscore our
dependence on foreign sources for this precious commodity and
for energy resources in general. These events have
significantly raised the public's awareness of the importance
of stable, predictable baseload sources of low cost
electricity, which nuclear energy supplies.
Nuclear energy has risen to the challenge of providing for
our nation's energy needs with superb performance. Last year,
it produced about 22 percent of our nation's electricity. The
average unit capability factor for the nation, the factor that
measures the percentage of maximum electricity generation that
a plant is capable of supplying, rose to 88.7 percent in 1999.
It was 62.7 percent in 1980.
Safety of U.S. plants remains excellent, the number of
unplanned automatic shutdowns, or scrams, was zero for the
third year in a row. The industry's safety accident rate has
dropped from 2.1 lost-time accidents per 200,000 worker-hours
in 1980 to 0.34 in 1999—compared to the rate for all of U.S.
private industry of 2.9 in 1998. Another impressive statistic
is that 96% of the U.S. nuclear power plants were available
more than 95 percent of the time.
There's still more positive news for nuclear energy. We've
now seen the first license renewals for nuclear power plants,
an immensely important milestone. It's important from many
- it demonstrates a long term future for nuclear energy,
- it demonstrates that a rejuvenated NRC is responding to
complex issues within a reasonable time frame, and
- it continues the environmental benefits of nuclear
energy by avoiding replacement of aging plants with fossil
There's bad news too. We've had our share of
disappointments in the legislative arena as the Administration
again blocked all progress toward expedited nuclear waste
disposition schedules. Their actions seriously undermine the
optimism I have for the future of nuclear energy in the United
On the one hand, Yucca Mountain work continues to advance
the scientific understanding of this location. I am hearing
somewhat higher confidence that it may be possible from a
scientific perspective to certify that site as a high level
waste repository. But on the other hand, I've seen no hint
that the opposition in Nevada is going to be swayed by any
amount of scientific evidence. Between Nevada opposition and
scientific questions, I seriously doubt that we are going to
see Yucca Mountain in operation by the advertised 2010 date.
Even if Yucca Mountain is operating in 2010, many utilities
are desperate for storage now. Some plants are running out of
storage space, and face premature closure of their facilities.
Such closures would only force their replacement by other
sources capable of generating such large amounts of baseload
power. That forces the utilities to use more fossil-fueled
plants, which only increases environmental concerns and the
risk of price fluctuations.
We need solutions as soon as possible for nuclear waste,
and Congress did its best this year to provide leadership in
this key area. Senate bill S.1287 developed by Senator Frank
Murkowski provided a solution by creating an "early receipt
facility" near Yucca Mountain that could have begun to receive
waste in 2007. But even after that bill passed both Houses by
significant margins, it was vetoed by the President. A veto
over-ride vote in the Senate failed by one slim vote. Thus,
the Administration succeeded for yet another year in stopping
all progress toward earlier solutions.
I remain puzzled and alarmed how an Administration that
claims to be concerned with issues like greenhouse gas
emissions and environmental pollution can so completely turn
its back on solving the largest roadblock to effective
utilization of nuclear power - a credible long-term solution
for nuclear wastes.
Senate bill 1287 had one entire title that I authored.
Title III required an Office of Spent Nuclear Fuel Research to
be set up within the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear
Energy Science and Technology. It required that we explore
alternative advanced solutions for spent fuel, solutions that
might enable future generations to decide that it is their
best interests to utilize the tremendous residual energy in
spent fuel or to minimize the toxicity of the final waste form
emplaced in a repository through reprocessing and
transmutation. Title III, of course, died with the rest of
S.1287 with the President's veto.
One of the key issues underlying all aspects of nuclear
technologies involves the radiation standards that are
utilized. I've been concerned for several years that we have
an abysmally poor understanding of these effects, and that we
may be using standards that are both very costly and very
poorly determined. I'm concerned that our poor understanding
of these effects may be leading us to use radiation protection
standards that incorrectly represent risks and drive the costs
As you all know, radiation standards are now determined
with the Linear-No-Threshold, or LNT, model. That model is
based only on linear extrapolations from a small set of very
high dose and dose rate exposures, like those from atomic bomb
victims. For a whole host of reasons, the American taxpayers
deserve to know if that model is accurate. The applications
and implications of the LNT model, and the uncertainties
inherent in it, are just far too large for it to continue to
be used without more complete understanding.
If these standards overestimate risks, they force us to
divert funds from other, potentially more worthy, national
goals. Alternatively, if the standards underestimate risks, we
need to invest still more in cleanup activities. Many
companies' profits from these cleanup contracts are enhanced
by the use of the LNT model, which unfortunately tends to
build a constituency with a vested interest in maintaining the
Many scientists seriously question whether the LNT model is
valid. They suggest that data support a model wherein benefits
are derived from moderate doses of radiation, perhaps by
stimulating cellular repair mechanisms within the body. In
this view, the constant exposure to natural backgrounds has
required the body to develop a suite of repair mechanisms.
These concerns led me to start a program in the Department
of Energy in 1999 to explore the cellular and molecular bases
for radiation protection standards. My goal was to better
understand radiation effects at low doses and to use this
knowledge to lead to more credible radiation protection
I'm pleased that this program is now well into its second
year, and is funding a wide range of projects that should
provide improved confidence in future standards. Funding for
this program remains a challenge, however.
The Energy and Water Appropriations bill for the current
year, provides $18.2 million for this program. The
Department's own program plan for next year calls for $22.5
million. But unfortunately, the Administration only suggested
funding this program at $11.7 Million next year, a far cry
both from the current level and from their needs. In a few
minutes, I'll discuss how the Senate Energy and Water
Appropriations bill for the 2001 fiscal year treats this
program. In fact, it is my commitments as chairman of the
Senate subcommittee developing this bill that is one of the
roadblocks to my attendance with you here today.
My concerns on radiation standards led me to request that
the General Accounting Office review a wide range of related
issues. My request to the nation's Comptroller General, David
Walker, went out on July 15, 1999. I'm pleased to report to
you that the GAO has completed their study, which I released
to the public two days ago.
In my request to the GAO, I asked them a series of
- How have radiation standards changed since 1994? Is a
consensus being approached, and what has resulted from the
recommendations in your previous report in 1994?
- What were the bases for setting the radiation protection
limits, and how is the linear-no-threshold hypothesis used
in setting these limits?
- If differences exist between agencies' standards, what
is the impact of these differences?
- Provide, from available data, information on the
variance in background radiation among locations in the
United States and around the world. Are differences in
cancer rates among these locations related to differences in
background radiation levels?
- What are the costs of complying with current radiation
protection regulations, and how, if at all, would these
costs be affected if radiation standards were substantially
The title chosen by the GAO provides a good clue to its
evaluations, Radiation Standards: Scientific Basis
Inconclusive and EPA and NRC Disagreement Continues.
The conclusions of the report won't be very surprising to
this audience. As the title indicates, they found the
scientific basis for current radiation regulations is
inconclusive, with more work needed. They note strong
scientific consensus supporting the low dose radiation effects
studies that I initiated within the Department of Energy.
The report discussed the assumptions on which the LNT model
is based. Consistent with several recent conferences, they
noted that there is simply no conclusive evidence for any
radiation-induced effects on human health below 5,000 to
10,000 millirems. And they re-stated the extremely weak
endorsement of the LNT model by groups like that National
Academy of Science's fifth study of the Biological Effects of
Ionizing Radiation, or BEIR V, which noted that the "linear
model is not inconsistent with available research data."
The report noted the continuing differences between the EPA
and NRC approaches to radiation standards, after 8 years of
trying to come to agreement. They noted that this dual
regulation by the two entities:
They evaluated the two agencies' standards
for Yucca Mountain, and quoted many technical groups,
including the National Academy of Sciences and the NRC, who
have stated that EPA has not provided a technical rationale
for its approach, has not done analysis of benefits and costs,
has not provided proposals that are scientifically supported,
and has proposed standards that provide little or no public
- Complicates cleanup and decommissioning processes,
- Causes duplication of effort and regulatory delays,
- Adds to facilities' compliance costs, and
- Raises public questions about the safety of cleanup
I've frequently noted that the nation should depend on the
bipartisan, highly technically qualified experts of the NRC
for guidance pertaining to radiation policy, and not on the
politically driven agendas of the EPA. This GAO report
certainly reinforces my views.
The report did not fully quantify cost differentials
between alternative cleanup standards, but provided examples
of the large cost multipliers for the few projects that have
been evaluated for cleanup to various radiation dose levels.
They noted, for example, up to a factor of 7 in costs between
cleanup of a site to 100 vs. 15 millirems. And they noted that
the baselines on which these multipliers may be applied are
gigantic, over $200 billion for the DOE complex and at least
$40 billion for civilian nuclear power plants.
The report reviewed 82 separate studies of cancer incidence
for populations living in areas with different background
levels. They could find little or no evidence of elevated
cancer risks from high natural backgrounds, and concluded that
cancer risks from exposures of a few hundred millirems
annually are very small or nonexistent. This supports one
conclusion of the report that both the NRC and the EPA
regulatory levels are so low that the benefits to the public
may not be clearly demonstrated.
It will be next year before Congress can fully assess this
excellent GAO report and consider actions. The most obvious
action may be to evaluate legislative approaches to either
force EPA and NRC to define one standard or give the
responsibility to one agency.
Let me turn from radiation standards to nuclear energy. My
Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
completed its markup just three days ago, and the full
Appropriations committee will consider actions on this bill in
two days. I am very proud of the progress in the Senate bill.
Let me give you some examples of the content of this bill.
The Nuclear Energy Research Initiative has been in existence
for only two years, it's funded at $22.4 million in the
current year. The Senate mark raised the funding for next year
to $41.5 million and included several new charges to the
One charge asked that they specifically study reactor-based
transmutation for nuclear waste within the expanded NERI
program. Another charge set aside $4.5 million for a serious
review of Gen IV reactors, with the goal of future commercial
deployment. The bill defines a Gen IV reactor as one that
will, to the extent possible, have the following
characteristics: superior economics, no possibility of a core
melt-down and/or no requirement for a public evacuation plan,
substantially reduced production of high level waste, highly
proliferation resistant fuel and waste, and substantially
improved thermal efficiency.
Three additional research areas are highlighted within NERI
in this bill. Each of these three is recommended for a $1
million investment. One involves a detailed assessment to
analyze changes needed in existing Advanced Light Water
Reactor, or ALWR, designs for them to be viable in the U.S.
marketplace within the next 5 to 10 years.
Another area will explore the opportunities to develop and
exploit the modular helium reactor technology for commercial
applications. This study is coupled with the continued funding
of this reactor in the joint United States-Russia program
exploring this reactor for plutonium disposition.
And the third research area will focus on the feasibility
of small modular reactors that may be attractive for remote
communities. Such a reactor would have to be inherently safe,
cost effective, have design features to deter sabotage or
efforts to divert nuclear materials, have infrequent re-fuel
requirements, and be largely factory-constructed and
deliverable to remote sites.
The low dose radiation effects program that I highlighted
earlier is funded at $20.1 million, far more than the $11.7
million proposed by the Administration. I was disappointed
that the Administration's proposal was barely half of the
funding that the Department had identified to keep this vital
program on track.
In the materials disposition account, as I just noted, I've
encouraged funding of the high temperature, helium gas-cooled
reactor for possible use in disposition of weapons-grade
plutonium. That funding is doubled for next year to $10
million. I understand that this program is attracting
considerable interest within Russia and from other nations as
In that same account, I included strong guidance to explore
thorium fuel assemblies. Such assemblies, when coupled to
either plutonium or uranium seed fuels, may offer an extremely
attractive approach to not only plutonium disposition but also
to civilian power. Both of these reactor types should also be
evaluated as part of the NERI Gen IV study, where I anticipate
that they may fare extremely well against the criteria I
Accelerator-driven transmutation of waste is another area
in which I've encouraged research. This approach may enable
dramatic changes in the toxicity of the final waste forms
placed in a repository. There's significant international
interest in this option, as well as in reactor-based
transmutation. Last year, $4 million was used to create a
technology road map, and $9 million this year served to start
progress on that road map.
For next year, I've proposed that two key programs be
combined, the Accelerator Transmutation of Waste and the
Accelerator Production of Tritium, into one Advanced
Accelerator Applications, or AAA, program. Both these programs
depend on high current accelerators, although obviously their
end goals are different. By combining the programs within the
Nuclear Energy office, but with partial funding from Defense
Programs, we can realize efficiencies for the common elements,
while enabling both programs to pursue the specialized
technologies that they need for their separate missions. There
are some other very attractive ideas for use of an intense
neutron source, which AAA will explore, in a wide range of
advanced nuclear energy and material science applications.
The total AAA program is funded at $60 million in the
Senate mark, well above the Administration's proposals, which
were zero for ATW and $19 million for APT - both of these
Administration's proposals are incomprehensible in light of
the potential impact of these programs.
Many other areas in this Senate bill impact aspects of your
conference. For example, I've repeatedly emphasized the need
to make progress in both military and civilian areas of
nuclear technologies. Nuclear energy can not realize its
potential unless the military clouds associated with nuclear
issues are well controlled. This forces careful consideration
of nuclear non-proliferation issues.
Several key non-proliferation programs are singled out for
special consideration in the Energy and Water Development
bill. The key program to prevent proliferation of materials,
the Materials Protection Control and Accounting effort, is
significantly enhanced, with an increase of $30 million over
last year. These new resources should allow the MPC&A
program to address important new opportunities for better
control of new and spent fuel at Russian Navy sites.
Programs to prevent "brain drain" of weapons scientists are
also boosted for next year. The Initiatives for Proliferation
Prevention is funded at $2 million above the budget request.
And the Nuclear Cities Initiative received a major boost, from
$7.5 million this year, and a $17.5 million Administration
request, to $30 million for next year.
In addition to this funding, I've worked to set the stage
for a dramatic new era of progress in the Nuclear Cities
Initiative with new guidance in the Defense Authorization
bill. This language couples increased funding for nuclear
cities to a requirement that the Russians develop a plan for
downsizing and restructuring these cities that includes
transparent, verifiable milestones. We need to insure that the
production capacity of these cities, as well as their large
number of weapon scientists, do not drive future global
I want to conclude tonight by challenging many of you who
are attending this Gordon Conference. Your technical
leadership is essential if nuclear technologies are to realize
their full potential to benefit mankind. You have the
expertise to develop new approaches to some of the roadblocks
erected against nuclear technology. You will be some of the
ones supporting the new programs that I've outlined. And you
have the technical credentials to challenge irrational or
scientifically incorrect notions about nuclear technologies.
My challenge is to continue to provide leadership on a
national level toward realization of the full positive impacts
of these technologies. With your help on technical progress, I
look forward to dramatic advances in the coming years.