Washington, D.C. -- In light of the dangerous, fast-moving wildfires that erupted in San Diego County, including in an area near the San Onofre nuclear power plant, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) urging the Commission to reverse its unwise policy of granting requests to terminate emergency response regulations at decommissioning nuclear reactors throughout the nation. Southern California Edison evacuated a dozen employees yesterday from the now closed San Onofre nuclear plant due to the wildfires. The EPW Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to examine the issues facing communities located near decommissioning nuclear reactors. During the hearing, the NRC acknowledged the dangers associated with a spent nuclear fuel fire, which could result in large radioactive releases and widespread contamination.
Senators Boxer, Sanders and Markey introduced legislation on Tuesday to address spent fuel storage, emergency preparedness and decommissioning plans at nuclear plants across the country.
The full text of the letter is below:
May 15, 2014
The Honorable Allison M. Macfarlane
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Rockville, MD 20852
Dear Chairman Macfarlane:
As you know, we are extremely concerned about safety issues surrounding decommissioning nuclear power plants.
On the same day as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's hearing on these issues, a dangerous, fast-moving set of fires erupted in San Diego County, including in the vicinity of the San Onofre nuclear plant. In response to one of these fires, Southern California Edison evacuated a dozen employees from the plant.
As you know, San Onofre currently contains 2,600 highly radioactive fuel rods in its spent nuclear fuel pools that were originally designed to hold only 1,600. In the event of a fire at the plant, the electricity needed to keep the pools full and cooled could be cut off, causing the water in the pools to boil off and the spent fuel to spontaneously ignite. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the NRC have both found that a spent fuel fire could result in large radioactive releases and widespread contamination. NRC's analysis has concluded that the health and economic impacts of a spent fuel fire could equal those caused by an accident at an operating reactor. In addition, you co-authored a paper that found that the consequences of such an event could exceed those that occurred at Chernobyl. At yesterday's hearing, NRC acknowledged these dangers in response to our questions.
Southern California Edison and Entergy have recently requested exemptions from the emergency response regulations designed to protect the surrounding communities from the consequences that events such as wildfires, earthquakes or terrorist attacks could cause. The NRC has never once refused a request to terminate the emergency response measures designed to protect the safety of communities living near decommissioning reactors. We trust the Commission will reverse this unwise policy, and insist on continued compliance with all safety and security precautions at shut down plants going forward.
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.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We expect the Commission's response as soon as possible, and plan a hearing with the Commission to further discuss these and other vital safety concerns.
Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Edward J. Markey
 National Research Council, "Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage," 2006