Two nuclear power hearings set for Wednesday

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Two Senate committees are holding hearings tWednesday morning on nuclear power issues. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is hosting a hearing at 9:30 a.m. on committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman’s (D-N.M.) nuclear waste management bill, which is based on the recommendations of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Brent Scowcroft, co-chairman of the commission, is one of the five experts testifying. The hearing will take place at the Dirksen Senate Office Building room SD-366 and will be streamed live on the committee’s website.
A half hour later, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will question the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on the agency’s progress on nuclear safety in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The committee’s chairwoman, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), is expected to focus on problems at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, located near San Clemente, California. The plant was shut down earlier this year after a Unit 3 reactor steam generator tube leaked. The hearing will take place at the Dirksen Senate Office Building room 406 and will be streamed live on the committee’s website.
NUCLEAR WASTE MANAGEMENT: It is unlikely that Sen. Bingaman’s bill, “Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012” (S. 3469), will pass this congressional session, but the senator, who is retiring at the end of this year, is looking to help shape policy going forward. His bill would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to create a new government entity to supervise the siting of interim and permanent nuclear waste storage facilities.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) biggest problem with the Bingaman bill is its failure to address current waste management issues at plant sites. Even under the best-case scenario, a national interim storage facility—let alone a permanent repository—is decades away. And even if a repository opened today, it still would take more than 30 years to ship the spent fuel from nuclear plant sites, according to a 2008 Department of Energy estimate. That means that large quantities of spent fuel will continue to build up at reactor sites for many years to come. Today, more than 67,000 metric tons of spent fuel is stored in 77 locations in 35 states. Of that, more than 49,000 metric tons—73 percent—is sitting in overcrowded, relatively vulnerable wet pools, which pose serious safety and security risks.
There is a way to reduce the risks associated with spent fuel pools: transfer the spent fuel to dry casks after it has cooled sufficiently, generally after five years. A 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that dry casks are safer and more secure than pools. Moreover, plant owners will have to transfer spent fuel to dry casks to ship it via rail or truck to an interim or permanent repository, so it makes the most sense to accelerate the transfer to dry casks.
The accelerated transfer of spent fuel into dry casks must be part of an integrated national waste-management policy. Legislation that addresses long-term waste problems but ignores current, known safety deficiencies puts the cart before the horse.  
NUCLEAR SAFETY: UCS issued two-dozen recommendations to the NRC in July 2011. Many of the organization’s 23 proposals address problems that were brought to light during the Fukushima accident, but others focus on deficiencies that have been evident for decades.
For example, 47 reactors still do not comply with fire protection regulations originally instituted in 1980 and amended in 2004. Because a fire can disable both primary and backup emergency systems, it is a leading risk factor for reactor core damage.
Instead of enforcing its own regulations, the NRC has routinely granted extensions to plant owners to meet its fire safety rules. Just last year, NRC commissioners voted to postpone the final deadline for compliance with the 2004 regulations to 2016.