Alexander: “Those of Us Who Support Nuclear Power…Ought to be Among the First to Ask Questions About What We Can Learn From Japan”

Senate committee hearing highlights important role Oak Ridge is playing in helping Japan overcome nuclear crisis

Posted on March 30, 2011

“Twenty percent of our electricity in the United States comes from nuclear power; 70 percent of our clean electricity comes from nuclear power. So it’s hard for me to imagine how we have a future in the United States without substantial expansion of nuclear power.”

–Lamar Alexander

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water said that while nuclear energy “has a safety record in the United States that’s not surpassed by any other form of energy production,” it is up to “those of us who support nuclear power…to be among the first to ask questions about what we can learn from what happened in Japan, and about the safety of our own reactors and those that are on the drawing board.”

“I think it’s very important that as a country we learn to honestly ask questions and continuously improve what we’re doing,” Alexander said. “But it’s important that we keep in perspective that the safety record of nuclear power in the United States really couldn’t be better.”

Alexander spoke of the safety history of nuclear energy in the United States: “The 104 civilian reactors we have in the United States have never produced a fatality, and the navy ships that have had nuclear reactors since the 1950s have never had a fatality from a reactor accident. While we’ve heard a lot about Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear accident we’ve had in our country, no one was hurt. …So the nuclear industry has a safety record in the United States that’s not surpassed by any other form of energy production.”

Committee testimony by Dr. Ernest Moniz, director of the Energy Project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former Undersecretary of the Department of Energy, highlighted the important role Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists are playing in modeling and simulation of improved and safer nuclear reactor design. “The first of DOE’s innovation hubs, located at Oak Ridge (with MIT as a major partner) is dedicated to developing related computational tools over the next several years,” Moniz said.

Alexander asked Moniz: “You mentioned the work that MIT and Oak Ridge are doing in modeling nuclear power plants. As I understand it, that’s based upon the supercomputing capacity there and the research and development capacity there that this subcommittee, and this Congress, and this President, are asked to fund on a yearly basis. How important is the United States’ ability to be among the leaders in the world in supercomputing to such projects as you are working on today to help us understand how to keep nuclear power plants safe?"

Moniz answered: “Large-scale modeling and simulation applied to complex engineered systems is something the Department of Energy, first of all, has been a leader in for a long time. It’s something the country really should lead for very important impacts—I believe—on our manufacturing capability, our regulatory capability. Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to do with this initial hub focused on light water reactor simulation.”

On May 28, 2010, an Oak Ridge-led team was selected to run the Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub.  Currently, the team at Oak Ridge’s Center for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors is working to help the Japanese government understand and model different scenarios for how best to respond to what they believe is currently happening with their reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Complex.

Alexander asked the nuclear energy officials testifying at the hearing about the kinds of safety enhancements that have been made at our nuclear plants in the U.S. since they began operation, and whether the next generation of nuclear reactors in the U.S. will have improved safety capabilities over reactors in service around the world today.

He also asked about the safety benefits of new technologies such as small modular reactors or spent fuel reprocessing, and noted that the United States should lead the world in research of such clean energy technologies.

“One of the most important things the federal government can do about clean energy is research,” Alexander said. “We have the capacity for it. I was in Great Britain last week and they reminded me that we’re the ones with the national labs, we’re the ones with the great research universities, and if any country is going to have advanced research in clean energy it ought to be the United States. We can do that for ourselves and for the world.”

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