On May 13, 2014, three bills related to spent nuclear fuel and power plant decommissioning were introduced in the Senate: the Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2014; the Dry Cask Storage Act of 2014; and the Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2014. The Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act would require nuclear plants to remove spent fuel from wet storage to dry cask storage before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could issue exemptions from security and emergency planning requirements. The Dry Cask Storage Act would require licensees to remove spent fuel from pools and place it into dry cask storage within seven years of submitting a decommissioning plan to the NRC. The Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act would give states and local communities a greater role in crafting and preparing decommissioning plans for retired nuclear plants.

The bills are all motivated by safety concerns for pool storage of spent fuel. This issue has been comprehensively assessed by the NRC in numerous detailed technical studies. For example, following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi station in Japan, the NRC considered whether licensees should be required to expedite the transfer of spent fuel from storage pools to dry cask storage systems. In a November 2013 report, the NRC staff issued the results of its evaluation of an extensive spent fuel pool accident study. The NRC staff found that, in light of the robust designs of spent fuel pools, public health and safety are protected. The NRC’s analysis also shows that within only a few months of spent fuel being removed from a reactor and placed in the pool, the fuel will have cooled to the extent that it is no longer susceptible to a radiological release. The NRC staff concluded that expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry storage would provide only a minor or limited safety benefit and recommended that no regulatory action be taken. The Commission is currently reviewing the issue, and a decision on a path forward is expected soon. 

As we’ve noted before, public discussion and policy direction should be based on facts rather than fears and on honest analysis rather than ideology. This is particularly true for nuclear power. Nuclear safety is a highly-technical arena, and one that relies on scientific and regulatory expertise of the NRC and licensees. The proposed legislation appears to ignore the conclusions of the government’s own experts at the NRC. It seeks, in effect, to trump the regulatory oversight process and require licensees to take action that has not been justified by risk analysis. In light of the overall very low risk of a spent fuel pool accident, the proposed legislation would not increase public safety and, in fact, accelerated transfer of the most recent spent fuel to dry cask storage could lead to increased worker exposures (and significantly increased costs). The politics of spent fuel management are complex (see, e.g.Yucca Mountain). In this context, sound technical analysis by the agency charged with ensuring nuclear safety, rather than prescriptive legislation, would be the best basis for public policy.