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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
IBD/TIPP Poll Shows a Dead Heat
1 hours ago

A new Investor’s Business Daily/TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence poll shows Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each earning 41% support. On the one hand, the poll has been skewing in Trump's favor this year, relative to other polls. But on the other, data guru Nate Silver called the IBD/TIPP poll the most accurate in 2012.

Come January Sanders Could Oppose Clinton from the Left
3 hours ago

"Sen. Bernie Sanders, a loyal soldier for Hillary Clinton since he conceded the Democratic presidential nomination in July, plans to push liberal legislation with like-minded senators with or without Clinton’s support if she is elected— and to aggressively oppose appointments that do not pass muster with the party’s left wing." Sanders and other similarly inclined senators are already "plotting legislation" on climate change, prison reform, the minimum wage, and tuition-free college.

McAuliffe Donated to FBI Official’s Wife
3 hours ago

"The political organization of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, an influential Democrat with longstanding ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, gave nearly $500,000 to the election campaign of the wife of an official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation who later helped oversee the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s email use."

Curt Schilling to Launch Breitbart Radio Show
4 hours ago

Baseball great Curt Schilling says he still needs to clear a challenge to Sen. Elizabeth Warren with his wife, but in the meantime, he's found something to occupy him: the former hurler is going to host a daily online radio show on "The show marks Schilling’s return to media six months after ESPN fired him for sharing an anti-transgender Facebook post."

The New Yorker Endorses Clinton
5 hours ago

The New Yorker has endorsed Hillary Clinton, saying that "barring some astonishment," she will become the next president. Calling Clinton "distinctly capable," the magazine excoriates Donald Trump as a candidate who "favors conspiracy theory and fantasy, deriving his knowledge from the darker recesses of the Internet and 'the shows.'" Additionally, the historical nature of the possibility of "send[ing] a woman to the White House" is not lost on the editors, who note the possibility more than once in the endorsement.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.