Washington, D.C. -- In a letter sent today to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called on the agency to stop issuing exemptions for emergency response regulations to decommissioning nuclear reactors which house spent nuclear fuel.

The licensees of reactors that are or will soon begin the decommissioning process, including the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California, have already submitted a wide range of exemption requests from emergency response, security, and other regulations to the NRC. On March 26th, Southern California Edison, which owns the San Onofre nuclear plant, was found to have violated NRC rules for eliminating 39 emergency response positions without first submitting and receiving Commission approval for an exemption to its emergency response requirements. On March 31st, the company submitted several emergency response exemption requests to the NRC. NRC has determined that earthquakes would be the most likely cause of a spent fuel pool failure that could result in a spontaneous fire, the release of large quantities of radiation, and widespread contamination.

The full text of the letter is below:

May 2, 2014

The Honorable Allison M. Macfarlane
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Rockville, MD 20852

Dear Chairman Macfarlane:

We write to request that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) cease exempting licensees of decommissioning nuclear reactors from its emergency response and security regulations. NRC repeatedly cites these regulations to demonstrate the long-term safety and security of spent nuclear fuel. Yet it has granted each and every one of the ten requests for exemptions from emergency response requirements that it has received from reactors that have permanently shut down, generally within 2 years of the reactors' closure and without regard to how much spent fuel is still stored in spent fuel pools. The NRC has also received or expects to receive similar requests for exemptions from emergency response and security requirements from the licensees of the Kewaunee, Crystal River, SONGS, and Vermont Yankee nuclear power plants. Given the risks associated with spent fuel pools, we urge you to deny all of these requests.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the NRC have both found that draining of a spent nuclear fuel pool can lead to fires, large radioactive releases and widespread contamination. NRC's analysis has even concluded that the health and economic impacts of a spent fuel fire could equal those caused by an accident at an operating reactor.

Emergency Protection Zones, which encompass a distance of 10-50 miles around a nuclear power plant, are the areas subject to evacuation plans and other emergency response actions developed by reactor licensees, NRC, FEMA, and local authorities. The meltdowns at Fukushima illustrated the need for such planning, with the Japanese government ordering evacuations out to 12 miles and the NRC and other countries recommending evacuation out to 50 miles, in part because of a concern about Fukushima's spent nuclear fuel. Similarly, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to new and strengthened security regulations, and a court decision and a NAS report both found that spent fuel pools could not be dismissed as potential targets for terrorist attacks.

NRC is currently in the process of finalizing its Waste Confidence decision that spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life of a nuclear power plant, and based this determination in part on the assertion that emergency preparedness and security regulations remain in place during decommissioning. The Commission is also voting on whether there is a benefit to accelerating the transfer of spent nuclear fuel to dry casks, and the document being voted on assumes the continued application of emergency response and security requirements.

What the NRC failed to state in its court and other filings was that licensees of decommissioning reactors are almost always exempted from the regulatory requirements NRC based its findings on within two years of the reactors' shut-down. This is unacceptable. We urge you to announce your intent to reverse this unwise policy.


Edward J. Markey
United States Senator

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Bernard Sanders
United States Senator

Patrick Leahy
United States Senator

Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator