Senators to NRC: Do Not Exempt Decommissioning Nuclear Reactors from Emergency Response and Security Measures

Washington (May 2, 2014) – In a letter sent today to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Allison Macfarlane, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Senators Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called on the agency to stop the “unwise policy” of issuing exemptions for emergency response regulations to decommissioning nuclear reactors which house decades-worth of spent nuclear fuel. Exemptions for compliance with the emergency response regulations – such as those that require evacuation zones and siren systems to warn of problems -  have been granted to all of the ten reactor licensees that have requested them in the past. Moreover, the licensees of reactors that are or will soon begin the decommissioning process (including San Onofre in California and Vermont Yankee) have already submitted a wide range of exemption requests from emergency response, security and other regulations to the NRC. The NRC is currently in the process of finalizing its finding 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. Accidents or attacks on spent fuel pools would put neighboring communities at great risk of experiencing radioactive releases, fires, and widespread contamination.

Full text of the letter is attached with appendices and 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


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