Senators: Nuclear decommissioning process is flawed

Senators sharply criticized the federal government’s oversight of decommissioning nuclear power plants, saying it does not ensure a safe process or adequate local involvement.

Three Senators in the Environment and Public Works Committee aired their grievances at a Wednesday morning hearing the day after they introduced three bills to change how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversees decommissioning.

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“I am concerned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not doing everything it can to keep these communities safe during the decommissioning process, including maintaining all emergency response capabilities at the sites,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairwoman.

Boxer targeted the commission's decisions to exempt reactors in the decommissioning process from federal requirements to maintain emergency response mechanisms at plants. The NRC has never denied an application for exemption from those rules, Boxer said.

“That means no more evacuation zones or planning, no more warning sirens and no more emergency relocation centers,” she said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized the NRC’s handling of the ongoing decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, saying the local community has not been allowed sufficient involvement.

“People want to know what is happening … and the nature of the decommissioning,” he said. “There have been some suggestions that the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee could take up to 60 years. And frankly, that is not acceptable to the people of the state of Vermont.”

Sanders said the commission does not allow states any kind of “meaningful” role in the planning process.

Boxer, Sanders and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced three bills Tuesday to reform the decommissioning process. They would end exemptions to safety and security requirements until all fuel stored is transferred into dry casks, require fuel to be moved to dry tasks within seven years of the time the decommissioning plan is submitted and guarantee involvement of states and local communities in the planning process.

Markey spoke specifically about the dry cask storage bill, which would reduce the amount of time that spent fuel rods are stored in water tanks, where they are dangerous.

“If an accident or terrorist attack were to occur, it could lead to radiation releases far greater than at Chernobyl or Fukushima,” Markey said.

Republicans at the hearing cautioned against the changes and said there is no reason to criticize the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s actions.

“I’m concerned about some push for changes to this process that are actually opposed by the commission,” said Sen. David Vitter (La.), the committee’s top Republican. “Throughout this 50-plus-year period, there has not been any mishap in the process that’s resulted in harm to public safety.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said giving generating companies more regulatory hoops to jump through would harm the nuclear power industry.

“I think there are real problems arising if you give legal power to states to alter reactor decommissioning or other changes to reactors after it’s been established clearly in the beginning,” he said.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he has “full confidence” in the NRC’s ability to handle decommissioning.

Michael Weber, Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s deputy executive director in charge of the decommissioning rules, defended his agency’s actions and said they take local concerns seriously.

“We listen, we welcome and we consider the comments that are provided. And they often influence how we review the decommissioning projects,” he said.