Courthouse News Service: Congressmen Call for Federal Rules on Nuclear Waste Cleanup

June 10, 2019
In The News

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. (CN) – At a U.S. House subcommittee hearing in Southern California on Friday, three congressmen said Congress must press for federal nuclear waste policy and pass legislation defining how and where waste can be stored.

Under federal law, dangerous nuclear fuel waste must be stored and sealed in underground geologic formations to protect public health.

But there are currently no federal sites for permanent or interim storage of nuclear waste, leaving operators of decommissioned plants and communities nearby to determine how best to dispose of the highly dangerous material.

At a field hearing, U.S. Reps. Mike Levin and Harley Rouda, both Democrats from Southern California, and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., called on the federal government to treat the issue as a priority.

Rouda, chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment, said the nearly 4 million pounds of nuclear waste at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS – a shuttered power plant located on the beach in nearby San Clemente – poses a risk to the community.

Local officials and communities have lodged complaints about a host of problems related to storage of spent nuclear fuel at SONGS which, if exposed, could lead to a health and environmental catastrophe.

Levin, also an environmental attorney, said cleanup at SONGS is a “central focus” for him since the toxic material is minutes from his home.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently fined SONGS plant owner Southern California Edison $116,000 for a 2018 incident in which workers decommissioning the plant dropped a steel canister containing nuclear waste 18 feet.

Many of the canisters sit 100 feet from the ocean. To the east of the facility lies a busy highway and active fault lines. California approved plans to remove SONGS’ onshore and offshore infrastructure from the coast last month.

Comer said in opening statements that the federal government has a responsibility to manage nuclear waste, especially as the volume of toxic material is expected to increase.

Levin pressed Nuclear Regulatory Commission administrator Scott Morris to explain the safety and enforcement standards in place.

Morris, a retired U.S Navy submarine officer, said decommissioned nuclear plants are routinely inspected and that canisters holding spent fuel are put through “violent” testing to ensure they can withstand everything from fires to tornadoes.

Levin asked Morris why the commission hasn’t appointed a full-time inspector at SONGS, a request the congressman inquired about in a letter this year.

“We implement policy,” Morris said, before being interrupted by Levin.

“Do you have the legal authority to appoint a full-time inspector?” Levin asked.

“Oh, yes,” Morris said. “We have the legal authority.”

Safety concerns were echoed by Daniel Stetson of the SONGS community engagement panel, who said communities are mainly concerned with “safely managing and removing spent fuel.”

Under a bill sponsored by Levin and Rouda, the Secretary of Energy would be directed to prioritize storage of waste or spent fuel based on risks from the host reactor, local seismic activity, and proximity to communities.

The Trump administration recently said it will move forward with a plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a formation near the California-Nevada border.

But Tom Isaacs, a former adviser to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, said the Yucca Mountain proposal is “unworkable” since the state of Nevada is contesting its licensing and the project lacks consent from nearby communities.

Comer said the application for the Yucca Mountain site should be “thoroughly reviewed” by Congress, but nuclear energy generation is “important for the country’s energy future.”

But the Trump administration added a wrinkle to the discussion this week with plans to reclassify more than 100 million gallons of dangerous radioactive waste as low-risk in an effort to save nearly $40 billion in cleanup costs at nuclear weapons facilities around the country. The move drew immediate backlash from environmentalists.

“The Trump administration is moving to fundamentally alter more than 50 years of national consensus on how the most toxic and radioactive waste in the world is managed and ultimately disposed of,” the conservation group Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

Isaacs pressed Rouda, Levin and Comer to return to Congress and press for federal nuclear waste management legislation.

“I believe the nation owes all of us timely solution for nuclear waste management,” Isaacs said. “The government is liable for delays and that liability continues to grow. We should not leave a legacy to our children to clean up after us.”

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