Senate Hearing: Nuclear Reactor Decommissioning Challenges

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s Environment & Public Works Committee held a hearing on Wednesday, May 14th, 2014 to assess the challenges of nuclear reactor decommissioning nationwide. Panelists called to testify at Wednesday’s senate hearing included Christopher Recchia, Public Service Department Commissioner of Vermont, Geoffrey Fettus, Senior attorney of NRDC,  Donald Mosier, Council Member of the City of Del Mar, Michael Weber, Deputy Executive Director for Compliance Programs of NRC and Marvin Fertel, President & Chief Executive Officer of NEI.

Christopher Recchia’s testimony to the senate opposed a request by operators of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to discontinue off-site emergency planning after the reactor shuts down.  He argued that the off-site emergency planning should continue after the reactor shuts down until all of the plant’s spent fuel rods are removed from pools and placed in dry cask storage. 

NRDC’s Fettus echoed Mr. Recchia’s, noting that our primary concern with the decommissioning process is that both regulatory requirements and the agency’s oversight regime are significantly scaled back when nuclear power reactors cease operation. Such waivers have been granted and are being sought even in the event that sizable quantities of spent nuclear fuel are left in pools for potentially decades. NRDC also addressed concerns over the adequacy of the decommissioning trust funds, there to ensure the company has the ability to do the expensive and complicated work of cleaning and removing a contaminated reactor site. Fettus cited a Government Accountability Office report in his testimony that states NRC’s formula for calculating decommissioning funding allocations may not reliably estimate the entire cost especially in instances where there is an underground site contamination. 

Donald Mosier’s testimony addressed the challenges in storage and disposal of the radioactive waste from the shutdown of Unit 2 and 3 nuclear reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. 

Michael Weber of the NRC and Marvin Fertel of NEI argued that NRC has a strong record of test and power reactor decommissioning and the process gives many opportunities for local residents to involve in the process by attending meetings and by providing comments. But Senator Boxer criticized Michael Weber’s testimony saying that NRC is not doing everything to keep local communities safe during decommissioning process and they have limited involvement in it. Specifically, Chairman Boxer’s concerns stem from the fact many decommissioned power plants store spent fuel in pools far over capacity and some of these plants are located on or near earthquake faults or other issues that can cause concern. As one example noted by Senator Sanders, the spent fuel pools at the Vermont Yankee reactor which is scheduled to be shut down later this year for example has about 3,879 fuel rod assemblies in its spent fuel pool while it was originally designed to hold about 350 fuel rod assemblies.

Along with conducting the oversight hearing, to improve the safety and security of decommissioning reactors and the storage of spent nuclear fuel Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public works, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) introduced three bills

The Dry Cask Storage Act of 2014 bill, introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer, Bernie Sanders and Edward Markey, would ensure that 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 7 years of the time the plan is submitted to the NRC.  The legislation also provides funding to help reactor licensees implement the plans and expands the emergency planning zone for non-compliant reactor operators to 50 miles. 

The Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2014 bill, introduced by Senators Bernie Sanders, Barbara Boxer and Edward Markey, would 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 NRC to publicly and transparently approve or reject every proposed decommissioning plan, which it currently is not required to do.

The Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2014 bill, introduced by Senators Edward Markey, Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders, would prohibit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (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, which are a more secure and safe option for storage.  

Senators Boxer, Sanders and Markey should be credited for convening an oversight hearing on an important matter and introducing constructive bills that directly address flaws in our safety regulations. With the upcoming retirements of nuclear power plants due to economic and ageing issues, it is timely that these bills are introduced. 

About the Authors

Bemnet Alemayehu

Project Scientist, Nuclear program

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