U.S. Senators Want Shuttered Nuclear Plants to Comply with Emergency Rules

Evening sets on the San Onofre atomic power plant in northern San Diego County, Calif. A group of U.S. Senators is asking the Nuclear Regulatory to not exempt the now-shuttered plant -- and others like it -- from emergency planning regulations.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
May 2, 2014, 10:22 a.m.

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.

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