Sen. Barbara Boxer, of California, introduces legislation regarding the safety and security at shutdown nuclear power plants like San Onofre
By Andrea Papagianis
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, assembled a full-committee hearing in Washington D.C. Wednesday regarding the issues and challenges posed by the decommissioning of nuclear reactors nationwide.
The hearing came a day after Boxer, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced three bills aimed to improve the safety and security of decommissioning plants and the storage of spent, or used, fuel at such nuclear sites.
Specifically, Boxer highlighted public safety concerns surrounding the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
The plant was shut down in 2012 after abnormal wear was discovered in its two nuclear reactors. In June 2013, Southern California Edison, the plant’s majority owner and operator, announced it would decommission the site, kick starting a decades-long process to defuel and dismantle the plant.
“This legislation will help guarantee that this facility and others like it are safely decommissioned and are no longer a liability for local communities,” Boxer said in a statement.
Getting the Public’s Input
Decommissionings are happening nationwide.
Since 1982, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants and therefore their decommissioning, has overseen 11 successful plant retirements, Michael Weber, the NRC’s deputy executive director for operations, told the committee.
There are currently 17 reactors in various decommissioning stages, he said—including San Onofre’s three.
In Vermont, a decommissioning is on the horizon. Entergy Corp. plans to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, and enter the retirement process, by the end of 2014.
“We willingly hosted the plant for 40 years,” said Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Public Service Department. “The plant has served its purpose.”
Recchia said Vermont has not taken energy from the plant since March 2012 after the state put its renewable energy commitment into practice. Vermont aims to source 90 percent of its power from renewables by 2050, he said.
Of major concern to Recchia however is the ending of the Yankee plant’s current life.
“Vermont has very little influence on the process and that needs to change,” he said. “We need a meaningful role to ensure … more rights over the process.
Public oversight and involvement has been a hot topic locally in recent months. Last week, at a community engagement panel meeting organized by Edison, area leaders and nuclear experts discussed ways in which California could become involved in the decommissioning process.
Now, with the backing of U.S. senators, local figures could someday play a more meaningful role.
It’s something Councilman Don Moiser of Del Mar hopes for. As one of four panelists at Wednesday’s senate committee hearing, Mosier highlighted issues he considered “significant public safety risks.” He pointed to the storage of nuclear fuel at SONGS as worrisome.
Currently, used nuclear fuel rods are being stored in pools until they’ve cooled enough to be moved into dry-cask storage—something nuclear experts have deemed safer for long-term storage.
According to the NRC, conditions at San Onofre are safe—at least enough to grant licensees’ requests for exemptions from emergency response regulations.
“We would not approve those exemptions unless we had confidence in the safety of the plant,” Weber told the commission.
Mosier called the NRC’s oversight “weak” and said federal presentations typically discuss regulation rather than enforcement and items specific to San Onofre. The councilman questioned why the NRC would allow more than 2,600 spent-fuel rod assemblies be stored in a pool designed for 1,600. Boxer echoed, pushing further to ask why fuel is not being moved into dry storage.
“Because the fuel is safely stored today,” Weber responded.
Addressing Safety Concerns
Of the bills introduced the week, one would bar the NRC from issuing exemptions to emergency response or security measures until all spent fuel is moved into dry storage.
Addressing the proposed legislation, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said some of this was semantics. He added the exemptions being sought were from operating requirements. Vitter called operating and non-operating plants “different animals.”
Weber concurred. “When the plant converts to a decommissioning status the risk posed by that operation, the security needs and the requirements for emergency preparedness are reduced,” he said.
But Thursday, the day after a big rig fire on Interstate 5 closed all lanes of traffic south of San Clemente and forced the evacuation of a dozen SONGS employees, the Boxer Markey and Sanders sent federal regulators, like Weber, a letter.
In it, they asked the NRC to reverse its policy of granting requests to terminate emergency response regulations at decommissioning nuclear reactors.
“We also urge the Commission to require all nuclear reactor operators to move the spent fuel rods stored in spent fuel pools into safer dry cask storage as quickly as it can be done, and to require operators to also incorporate state and local government views into their plans for decommissioning reactors,” they wrote.
Continuing the Local Dialogue
The San Onofre decommissioning discussion will continue Thursday, May 22 as the community engagement panel meets in Laguna Hills.
Panelists include the mayors of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, as well as Supervisor Pat Bates and other stakeholders from Orange and San Diego counties.
The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at The Hills Hotel, located at 25205 La Paz Road. For more on the panel, visit www.songscommunity.com.