Senate Bills Aim to Shield Nuclear Power Plant Waste from Sabotage

Evening sets on the now-closed San Onofre atomic power plant near San Diego in 2004. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement that legislation she and two other senators introduced Tuesday "will help guarantee that this facility, and others like it, are safely decommissioned and are no longer a liability for local communities."
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
May 13, 2014, 10:24 a.m.

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.

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