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It's admirable that Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden and his colleagues Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have introduced legislation to address one of modern society's gravest dangers: the risk of exposing humans to the extremely long-lived radioactive waste materials from our nuclear power plants.
The primary purpose of Wyden's legislation is to replace the failed Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste repository plan with a process for choosing a permanent site and interim storage sites. As is often the case on this issue, the devil will be in the details. If enacted, this process will take a minimum of seven years before any of the thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste could be moved. Furthermore, interim storage sites, unless they are near to the eventual permanent site, could lead to transporting this deadly waste more than once -- increasing the public health hazard even more.
Unfortunately, the original language in the bill also neglects the near-term danger presented by these highly radioactive wastes at nuclear reactor sites. Fortunately, Wyden appears to be trying to do something about it. He favors using the bipartisan support for waste legislation to encourage utilities to transfer thousands of tons of highly radioactive "spent" nuclear fuel rods from vulnerable spent fuel pools into safer dry cask storage. Dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel rods, which is passively air-cooled, held up relatively well in the Fukushima accident.
At the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's first hearing on his bill July 30, Chairman Wyden complimented nuclear engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who advocated improvements in the safety of the highly radioactive spent fuel by transferring waste from spent fuel pools into dry cask storage. Wyden then turned to nuclear power supporters, advising them that "we are all going to have to do some things we may not fully support in this bill."
Wyden learned firsthand just how dangerous a spent fuel pool can be. After visiting Fukushima Dai-ichi in 2011, he publicly called for the U.S. and Japanese governments to take action to speed management of reactor No. 4's spent fuel pool. The pool, damaged by the earthquake, is still in danger of collapsing. Engineers are unable to strengthen the weakened pool until the radiation from the accident has cooled, leaving us with only the hope that there is no intervening earthquake to collapse it and release an even larger amount of radioactive material than in the original accident.
We must learn this Fukushima lesson and avoid putting ourselves in this vulnerable position again. A government report concluded in 2007 that a collapse of a spent fuel pool caused by an earthquake at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California would result in a lethal dose of radiation within a 10-mile radius of the plant.
In our region, the Columbia Generating Station nuclear reactor is adjacent to the former weapons production facilities at Hanford, Wash. This seismically active site is highly toxic, containing long-lived and highly radioactive materials, some in already compromised storage tanks. A spent fuel pool accident at the Columbia nuclear power plant could massively contaminate the Hanford site and have the potential to unleash more radioactivity into the environment than occurred during the Chernobyl disaster, condemning the Columbia basin to uncontrolled contamination for many generations.
Wyden is wise to address the immediate safety issues of spent fuel waste at reactor sites rather than leave our safety hostage to a vague process to identify voluntary waste sites that could take many years to complete. He deserves our support and encouragement.
John Pearson is a retired pediatrician and president of the Oregon PSR Board of Directors.