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Senators introduce three nuclear safety bills

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) have introduced three bills aimed at improving the safety and security of nuclear power plants, focusing on decommissioning reactors and the storage of spent nuclear fuel. The three bills introduced by the senators are the Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2014, the Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2014, and the Dry Cask Storage Act of 2014.

In a recent report, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) concluded that 24 U.S. nuclear plants may not be able to withstand an earthquake, if one were to hit in the vicinity.

The Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2014 would prohibit the NRC from issuing exemptions from its emergency response or security requirements for spent fuel stored at nuclear reactors that have permanently shut down until all of the spent nuclear fuel stored at the site has been moved into dry casks, a more secure and safe option for storage.

The Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2014 seeks to ensure that states and local communities have a meaningful role in the crafting and preparation of decommissioning plans for retired nuclear plants located in those areas. The bill also requires the NRC to publicly and transparently approve or reject every proposed decommissioning plan, which it currently is not required to do.

The Dry Cask Storage Act of 2014 would ensure that every nuclear reactor operator complies with an NRC-approved plan that would require the safe removal of spent nuclear fuel from the spent fuel pools and place that spent fuel into dry cask storage within seven years of the time the plan is submitted to the NRC.

According to the press release from the senators, studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, the NRC, and independent experts have shown that partial draining of the water from a spent fuel pool caused by a natural disaster, accident or terrorist attack could result in a spontaneous fire, the release of large quantities of radiation and widespread contamination. 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.

Sen. Markey said, “Experts agree that a spent fuel pool accident could have consequences that are every bit as bad as an accident at an operating reactor. In Massachusetts, Pilgrim nuclear plant’s spent fuel pool contains nearly four times more radioactive waste than it was originally designed to hold. Nuclear waste must be moved to safer storage now before the next nuclear disaster occurs.”

Senator Boxer said, “In my home state of California, the San Onofre nuclear plant has closed permanently, and this legislation will help guarantee that this facility, and others like it, are safely decommissioned and are no longer a liability for local communities."

Senator Sanders said, “Every state with a nuclear power plant has a strong interest in how that plant is decommissioned. This is about making sure that states and local communities can play a meaningful role in a decision that has enormous economic, environmental, and community impacts.”

A separate bill introduced by the same three senators 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.


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