Three senators on Tuesday introduced a group of bills aimed at improving the safety and security of nuclear power plants in the event of a natural disaster or act of sabotage.
One of the bills, introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would ultimately force nuclear power plant operators to accelerate the transfer of nuclear waste stored in spent fuel pools into dry cask storage units.
Activists have long argued that spent fuel pools at many plants are filled beyond their originally intended capacity and could cause a catastrophic radioactive fire in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. Dry cask storage units, which some reactors are already using in a limited capacity, would be safer and more secure, watchdog groups have said.
Industry officials have downplayed the risk, however, and in November, Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff recommended that the five-member, presidentially appointed panel not require plant operators to accelerate such transfers. The legislation senators introduced Tuesday would force the commission's hand and mandate that it create such a requirement.
"Studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and independent experts have shown that partial draining of the water from a spent fuel pool caused by an accident or terrorist attack could result in a spontaneous fire, the release of large quantities of radiation and widespread contamination," according to a press release from the senators.
"However, NRC regulations allow spent fuel to remain stored in spent fuel pools until the reactor completes decommissioning, which can take as long as 60 years," the statement continues.
The senators did not release the bill text by press time, but according to the release, the legislation "provides funding to help reactor licensees implement" the required steps. It is unclear whether that money would come from funds previously set aside for reactor decommissioning -- a prospect that is controversial among nuclear watchdog groups who would otherwise likely back the legislation.
While the activist groups believe accelerated transfer to dry cask storage is necessary, there is some disagreement over whether the decommissioning funds should remain untouched in order to ensure adequate money remains for cleanup after a plant closes.
Another provision in Tuesday's legislation would expand -- from 10 miles to 50 miles -- the size of the emergency planning zone around reactors that do not comply with the accelerated waste transfer plan.
Although NRC officials urged U.S. citizens within 50 miles of Japan's Fukushima plant to evacuate during the onset of the disaster there in 2011, the commission only requires U.S. plants to have emergency response plans that cover a 10-mile area.
A separate bill introduced by the same three senators on Tuesday would stop the commission from issuing exemptions to its emergency response and security requirements for those reactors that have permanently shut down.
In a letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane earlier this month, the senators said the commission had already granted such exemptions to 10 shuttered plants and that it was expected to consider doing so for four more sites in the near future.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer chairs, is expected to host a hearing addressing decommissioning issues on Wednesday.