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DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS-FISCAL YEAR 1987
(Nuclear Energy Programs and Nuclear Waste
TUESDAY, APRIL 29, 1986
U.S. SENATE, SUBCOMMITTEE ON ENERGY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT, COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES,
Washington, DC. The subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 10 a.m., in room SD-366, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Hon. Pete V. Domenici presiding.
Present: Senators Domenici, McClure, Wallop, Warner, Hecht, Evans, Johnston, and Ford.
Also present: Marilyn Meigs, professional staff member; Benjamin S. Cooper, professional staff member for the minority; and James T. Bruce, counsel for the minority. OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. PETE V. DOMENICI, A U.S.
SENATOR FROM THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO Senator DOMENICI. Good morning. The subcommittee hearing will come to order.
Let me first indicate for the record and to our friend, Senator Ford, that I will have to be on the floor at 10:30. I think Chairman McClure is going to arrive and take my place so that we can finish the hearing today.
We have Mr. Vaughan, Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, and Mr. Ben Rusche, Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, as our leadoff witnesses, and then we have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Mr. Victor Stello, Executive Director for Operations. Military applications, we have two witnesses, Colonel Hess, and Colonel Heilman. We will try very hard, gentlemen, to accomplish the purposes of the hearing.
Let me open by saying good morning to everyone. Today we will be receiving testimony from the administration on various aspects of the Department of Energy programs, including its budget request for fiscal year 1987, that relate to the nuclear energy and radioactive waste disposal.
May I say at the outset that, while we may be tempted today to talk more about the Russian nuclear technology and safety standards, rather than the United States counterpart, we really ought to try to stick to the business at hand.
First, before we go on, I think this might be a good opportunity for us to take a moment to ask our expert witnesses if they have learned any more about the Russian reactor incident that may not yet be available to us.
We would be interested in what you know about the design features, safety features, safety standards of the Russian reactors compared to our own commercial reactors. If the Russian incident does involve a radioactive fire, why is that not a like scenario for United States reactors? Even if a fire were to develop, what is the likelihood of release into the environment, in view of the requirements for containment structures?
Do you, either of you, have any comments with reference to that?
Mr. VAUGHAN. Mr. Chairman, let me respond as succinctly as I can to those queries before we begin. First of all, let me say that the Department of Energy does not really have any detailed knowledge of what happened in the event in the U.S.Š.R., beyond that which has been made available and broadcast on the public media and the wire services.
So we have no real additional specifics. I am sure that you are aware that the press, this morning, has been reporting that there is, as a result of some series of events unknown, a large graphite fire burning at the reactor, which has undoubtedly contributed to the atmospheric release of fission products.
Senator DOMENICI. Does graphite burn?
Mr. VAUGHAN. Yes, it will burn. There are degrees and quality of graphite which will inhibit its burning compared to other forms of graphite, and we have no detailed knowledge on the form of graphite which they use.
With respect to U.S. reactors, you have heard both this Department and the NRC articulate on numerous occasions what we be lieve are the keys to the very close attention paid to the safety, design and operation of U.S. reactors. Basically, a defense-in-depth concept in terms of having designed very carefully high-quality machines and inspected very carefully to ensure the quality is there.
The first line of defense, of course, is the integrity of the reactor fuel cladding. Beyond that, there are numerous safety and protective systems in the reactor which will assure protection and shut down in the event of abnormal events and, beyond that, the capability, typically, for emergency core cooling if even those protective systems should not do the job they are designed and intended to do.
And, third, beyond those stages, the capability for containment and control to prevent the release of radioactivity.
The large commercial reactors in this country are basically pres. surized water-cooled reactors with water acting as both the coolant and the moderator, and of course, water does not burn. The Rus sian reactor that is the subject of interest is a water-cooled, graphite-moderated, open-cycle boiling water reactor, and so has quite a number of different design features and safety features built in it that are truly unique to the Soviet Union and are not common to the reactors in this country.
Senator DOMENICI. What about containment, overall?
Mr. VAUGHAN. The Russians are reported to typically not use quite the same level of containment that we do in United States nuclear powerplants and the degree to which that is a factor or not a factor in this accident I think would remain to be seen depending on what the facts are as to the initial causes of the accident.
It is not implausible that there may have been some industrial explosion, or something of that nature, that could have caused them to lose both their power systems and their control systems. We will just have to wait to see what happened.
Senator DOMENICI. Just specifically, at the TMI accident, there was a partial core meltdown and there were large amounts of radiation released from the reactor core to the reactor building. Why were the offsite releases practically unmeasurable in this accident?
Mr. VAUGHAN. In large part, what we have learned from that accident scenario, as we have examined it in some detail in the 5 years since, is that inherent within the water-cooled reactor system was the capability that, even though the core had some partial melting, it was ultimately cooled and most of the fission products reacted and stayed in the system rather than being released outside the reactor system, first, and second, outside the containment building as a secondary backup.
Senator DOMENICI. Senator Johnston?
Senator JOHNSTON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would simply like to make one statement, and I will ask a question later. I just want to make it so you can be thinking about it, and that is with respect to the MRS facility. There is a budget request here, but I do not think that budget request requests the authorization of the facility, and I think it should if we are going to be spending this kind of money. We ought to go ahead and make a commitment to have the MRS authorized as it, of course, can be as part of the appropriation legislation.
I simply make that statement and I will question you about it later.
Senator DOMENICI. Senator Johnston, and any other Senators, I thought maybe someone would have a question on the issue that I raised which was not the subject matter of the hearing, with reference to the Russian incident. Then, when we get to opening statements, to set into focus what our hearing is about today, which is not that, but nonetheless we are here, and I assume Senators might want to ask some questions on it.
That is why I yielded to you and anyone else who has a question on that will go next, and then we will go to our normal hearing.
Senator JOHNSTON. If I may just ask one question on that. I heard on the radio that the Soviets had asked for help in putting out the graphite fire. Have they asked us for that help?
Mr. VAUGHAN. Senator Johnston, the President made a statement this morning to the media while he was in Gaum, that the United States did have technical and medical expertise available which could be provided if it was needed. The details of the nature of the help and the specifics and whether or not it would be requested are still a matter under discussion as the day proceeds.
Senator DOMENICI. Senator Warner.
Senator WARNER. I have some questions directing the attention of the witness to the second repository issue which is of great concern in my State. Thank you.
Senator DOMENICI. Senator Ford?
Senator FORD. In keeping with your opening remarks, I want one question as it relates to the event in Soviet Russia.
The cloud is apparently moving. The Swedes said that their particles per million have increased 100-fold as a result of the rain they had yesterday. It is estimated that cloud will reach the west coast within the next 3 to 4 days.
How much concern do we need to have for that particular cloud? And will it continue based on its still burning, Mr. Secretary?
Mr. VAUGHAN. Senator Ford, obviously I don't have precise answers to those questions because the movement of clouds is somewhat speculative. My understanding is that the Swedes commented that, even though their levels of radioactivity had increased based on using very sensitive monitoring equipment, they did not believe that those levels posed any hazard to public health and safety. That simply is what I have heard on the media and not based on additional, special knowledge.
We obviously, through equipment and systems available to the Department of Energy at its national laboratories, will closely monitor the atmospheric conditions as they might relate to this country and if any action is warranted, take such action. But we do not anticipate any fallout to the degree it would be a serious public concern to this country.
Senator FORD. If this fire is not contained, not brought under control and continues to burn and continues to create a cloud, do you still think, in your best judgment, we would not have anything to worry about as it relates to health hazards?
Mr. VAUGHAN. That is my best judgment, obviously based on very limited knowledge. Several people have commented that the basic direction of movement of the cloud initially was counter to the normal winds and movements that are expected in that area. So it is not even clear it would continue to move in the same direction.
Senator FORD. I guess if they were burning coal, the only thing we would have would be acid rain. [General laughter.]
Senator DOMENICI. Senator Evans?
Senator EVANS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. What do you know of the precise nature of the event, and have we asked specifically of the Soviets that kind of information? It seems to me that it is terribly important at this point to try to get them to be as candid as possible just on behalf of the safety of other nations that might be involved.
Have those kinds of questions been asked? What do we know of the precise nature of the event, and of the reactor, itself, in terms of its cooling capacities, just the nature of it, and if we have made those inquiries, what kind of response have we been getting?
Mr. VAUGHAN. Senator, let me answer that in two parts. First, just prior to your coming in, when I responded to a similar question from
Senator EVANS. I am sorry I missed it.
Mr. VAUGHAN [continuing). From Senator Domenici, we have little precise knowledge of the incident, other than that which has been in the public media. There has been no specific set of inquir. ies made, but those are being considered and will be considered as a part of any offer for us to provide assistance.