Senate Democrats Push for New Reactor Mandates Against Nuclear Disasters

WASHINGTON – Key Senate Democrats are urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require that aging atomic power plants make upgrades meant to reduce the amount of radioactive material released into the environment following an act of terrorism or a natural disaster.

Members of the party's Senate leadership were among 12 Democrats to sign a letter made public on Thursday that urges the commission to install so-called filtered vents at old nuclear plants.

In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan, the commission ordered U.S. plants of General Electric’s Mark I design – the same used at Fukushima – to improve venting systems intended to relieve pressure inside a reactor’s containment vessel and prevent rupture in the event the plant’s cooling system became disabled due to power loss. It also ordered plants of the similar GE Mark II design to install such venting systems from scratch.

Critics have complained, however, that the commission has not required that plants include filters that would limit the amount of radioactive material that escapes into the surrounding environment when the vents are opened in an emergency to relieve pressuring building within the containment vessel. The commission also did not demand the vents be operable when electricity is not available, as was the case during the Fukushima crisis.

In November, NRC staff recommended the commission require these additional measures. In the new letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison, Democrats complained that the commission has yet to act on this call.

“Two and a half months have already passed since the NRC staff made this well-reasoned recommendation to the commission and implementing these safety measures will likely take several years,” the Wednesday letter says. “The tens of millions of Americans who live near the affected reactors located in 15 states should not face additional delays.”

Among the signatories is Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the commission. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also signed the missive.

Prior to this week’s letter, advocacy on the filtered vents issue has fallen largely on outside watchdog organizations.

Last month, the five-member commission unanimously rejected a legal bid by the group Pilgrim Watch to have it require the upgrades. The agency, however, is still debating whether to issue a similar mandate on its own terms.

House Republicans and nuclear power industry officials are pressuring the commission not to make such requirements. In a letters last month, the Nuclear Energy Institute argued that requiring filtered vents could distract from efforts to ensure that the integrity of a reactor’s containment system is not threatened in the first place. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers argued the commission has not yet done enough to assess the differences between the U.S. and Japanese regulatory systems.

February 22, 2013
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WASHINGTON – Key Senate Democrats are urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require that aging atomic power plants make upgrades meant to reduce the amount of radioactive material released into the environment following an act of terrorism or a natural disaster.

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