Feinstein Urges U.S. Review of Nuclear Waste Amid Japan Crisis

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the U.S. should re-evaluate how it regulates nuclear waste as scientists in Japan struggle to contain radiation from spent fuel rods at a crippled reactor.

“We lack a comprehensive national policy to address the nuclear fuel cycle, including management of nuclear waste,” Feinstein, the chairman of a Senate spending panel, said today at a hearing examining the failure of a Japanese nuclear plant.

The Obama administration is reviewing safety rules at U.S. plants and may issue recommendations for additional measures to prevent a similar accident. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers waste storage may be examined in the review ordered by the president.

Spent-fuel pools are “very robust structures” that can safely store waste for 100 years, Jaczko told Feinstein, who has pushed to keep spent-fuel rods in so-called dry casks.

Feinstein told reporters that policymakers have a responsibility to future generations.

“You can’t just say we’re only going to worry about the next 100 years,” Feinstein said. “These things are forever. And we’ve got to worry about forever and see that we should do the right thing.”

Feinstein said the U.S. should build regional waste repositories to reduce reliance on spent-fuel pools and dry casks, where the rods are stored after they’ve cooled in water for at least five years.

Nuclear Waste

Japan’s reactor crisis has re-opened a political debate over handling nuclear waste and plans for a storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Obama administration canceled the project in 2009, after $9 billion was spent, and created a commission to evaluate options.

Jaczko said pools and dry casks can withstand “natural phenomena.” The spent-fuel pool for reactor 3 at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant may have a leak, he said. The pool at reactor 4 also is damaged, he said.

Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the U.S. should reconsider its opposition to fuel reprocessing, which would reduce the amount of waste.

Feinstein said the U.S. should require spent fuel in water pools be moved to dry cask storage within a set number of years. She also called for an independent assessment of U.S. nuclear safety.

The U.S. recommended that Americans living 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the Fukushima plant leave the area, in part because the NRC thought a spent fuel pool may be empty or low on cooling water, posing a greater risk radiation might be released.

Prudent Decision

Jaczko said the decision was prudent based on a limited amount of information available at the time.

U.S. operators must have plans for moving out residents living 10 miles from a nuclear plant based on events “that would happen in a very short period of time,” Jaczko said.

He said there is a possibility that additional protective steps would be needed under similar circumstances in the U.S. as was thought to be occurring in Japan.

Jaczko, who returned yesterday from a trip to Japan, said he now thinks the safety zone around the Japan plant should be about 20 miles.

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