A group of Senate Democrats is urging the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to stop exempting recently shuttered nuclear power plants from emergency-planning and security regulations.
Retired nuclear power plants in the United States still have significant amounts of nuclear waste at their sites, and likely will for the foreseeable future, the senators note in a Friday letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane.
The nuclear commission has already exempted 10 such plants from emergency rules, the senators say, and it is expected to consider applications for similar exemptions from at least four additional sites in the near future.
"The meltdowns at Fukushima illustrated the need for such planning [requirements], with the Japanese government ordering evacuations out to 12 miles and the NRC and other countries recommending evacuation out to 50 miles, in part because of concern about Fukushima's spent nuclear fuel," the letter states.
"Similarly, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to new and strengthened security regulations, and a court decision and a [National Academies of Science] report both found that spent fuel pools could not be dismissed as potential targets for terrorist attacks," according to the missive.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is one of the signatories to the Friday letter. Others include Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Senator Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Senate Democrats, also signed the letter.
The five senators note that the commission is currently in the process of finalizing a proposed "waste confidence" rule, in which the regulatory body declares it has confidence that nuclear waste from U.S. power plants will ultimately be disposed of safely, despite the Obama administration's cancellation of the controversial and long-delayed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada.
Legally, the commission must be able to declare such confidence in order for it to allow any nuclear power plants to operate. The commission has stalled licensing decisions for all new and existing plants until it is able to finalize the rule, a prior version of which was thrown out by a federal appellate court.
In their new letter, the senators note that in its latest proposal, the commission bases its declaration of waste confidence "in part on the assertion that emergency preparedness and security regulations remain in place during decommissioning." The lawmakers are concerned that, at the same time, the commission is forgoing those very regulations at numerous decommissioned sites.
Meanwhile, NRC staff is also recommending that the commission not require power plant operators to accelerate the transfer of nuclear waste from spent fuel pools into dry cask storage. Some experts argue dry cask storage is safer, and it would decrease the possibility of a catastrophic radioactive fire in the event of an accident or terrorist attack.
The letter identifies the recently shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, located near San Diego, as one that the senators expect will soon be on the NRC docket for possible exemption from emergency-planning requirements. The plant closed last year following a controversy in which Southern California Edison had initially sought to keep the facility running with defective parts.
Boxer earlier this year threatened to sue the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for withholding documents related to the San Onofre controversy.
The Friday letter also identifies the Kewaunee Power Station near Green Bay, Wis., the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant near Tampa, Fla., and the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station near Brattleboro, Vt., as the three other sites at which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may soon consider exemptions.