Statement of Senator Barbara Boxer
Full Committee Hearing: "Nuclear Reactor Decommissioning: Stakeholder Views"
May 14, 2014

(Remarks as prepared for delivery) 

Today, the Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a hearing on the issues facing communities located near decommissioning nuclear reactors.

Last year, 4 nuclear reactors were shut down permanently, including those at California's San Onofre nuclear plant which closed because of a severe safety failure. A fifth reactor at the Vermont Yankee plant will close at the end of this year, and analysts have predicted that more closures will follow.

The San Onofre closures may bring some relief to California communities that have worried about the reactors' safety, but 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.

The people who live and work nearby need to have a voice in the decommissioning process, and we will hear from a representative of one of those communities today.

When reactors shut down, they stop producing nuclear energy. However, all of the highly radioactive fuel must remain stored in a large pool of cooling water for 5 to 7 years after it comes out of the reactor core because it is too dangerous to remove.

Today, I plan to discuss studies that have shown that an accident or terrorist attack on a crowded spent fuel pool could result in a spontaneous fire and the release of large quantities of radiation.

The NRC has also determined that an earthquake would be the most likely cause of a spent fuel pool accident.

We must ensure that these scenarios are addressed.

At San Onofre, the spent nuclear fuel pools were designed to hold a total of 1,600 spent fuel assemblies - but currently they hold more than 2,600. That overcrowding puts them at risk of serious safety consequences if they experience an accident or terrorist attack.

Make no mistake - the reactors may be shut down, but the risks of an accident or attack have not gone away. While NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane co-authored a paper that found that the long-term land-contamination consequences of a spent fuel fire "could be significantly worse than those from Chernobyl," NRC has taken no action thus far to ensure appropriate levels of protection are in place.

In fact, every time operators of decommissioning reactors have asked to be exempted from NRC's emergency response regulations, NRC has said yes. That means no more evacuation zones or planning. No more warning sirens. And no more emergency relocation centers.

NRC justifies these exemptions by saying that a spent fuel fire at a decommissioning reactor would take 10 hours to ignite after an accident or terrorist attack occurred - and NRC also assumes that 10 hours would be enough time to fix the problem.

Hoping that the consequences of a catastrophic accident or attack on a spent fuel pool can be stopped within 10 hours is neither responsible nor realistic.

For example, less than 10 hours after the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima, high levels of radiation were already being measured outside the reactor buildings, and most of the fire trucks and pumps that were supposed to provide water to cool the reactors in an emergency were found to be unusable.

We can't just assume that everything will go as NRC hopes it will go following a catastrophic earthquake or terrorist attack.

That is why yesterday I introduced the "Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2014." This bill prohibits the NRC from approving any emergency response or security exemption requests that are supposed to protect against a spent fuel accident until all the spent fuel is placed into safer dry cask storage.

I have also cosponsored two other bills to improve the safety of spent fuel and accountability during the decommissioning process authored by Senators Sanders and Markey.

Safety of the American people is our number 1 priority, and that does not change whether a nuclear facility is fully operational or shut down. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses so we can keep communities located near decommissioning reactors as safe as possible.