Bills would beef up safety regs for spent nuclear fuel

Lawmakers are pressing to bolster regulations for spent nuclear fuel, contending that pools left to languish for decades at decommissioning plants could prove disastrous in the event of an accident or terrorist attack.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday introduced a trio of bills meant to tighten safety and security at plants winding down operations around the country.

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“Experts agree that a spent fuel pool accident could have consequences that are every bit as bad as an accident at an operating reactor,” Markey said. 

Spent fuel can produce heat and radiation threats long after it is removed from a nuclear reactor’s electricity generating operation. Too dangerous to ship away from the plant altogether for as long as seven years, the spent fuel is left in pools at the plants.

A leak — whether due to accident or attack — could lead to fire and widespread contamination, the lawmakers said, citing various reports. Yet current Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules allow for spent fuel to remain in the pools until the reactor completes decommissioning, which can take as long as 60 years, they said.

The Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2014 would bar the NRC from exempting reactor licensees from any safety or security requirements at decommissioning plants until all fuel stored at the site is transferred into safer dry casks.

The lawmakers contend that the NRC has granted every exemption request it has ever received from decommissioning reactors, despite the agency's own determination that an earthquake could result in a devastating breach.

The Dry Cask Storage Act of 2014 is designed to force nuclear reactor operators to adhere to an NRC-approved plan for the transfer of spent fuel to dry cask storage within 7 years of the time the plant’s decommissioning plan is submitted. 

Under the lawmakers’ Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2014, states and local communities would be guaranteed a meaningful role in the preparation of decommissioning plans for retired nuclear plants.

The legislation would require the NRC to publicly approve or reject every proposed decommissioning plan.

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