Senator Urges Broad Nuclear Moratorium

In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Japan, Sen. Bernie Sanders is urging the White House to form a presidential commission on nuclear safety in the United States as part of a five-point crisis response.

In a letter to President Obama, Sanders (I-Vt.) also asked for a moratorium on license renewals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He says the White House should withdraw a request for $36 billion to bankroll building new nuclear plants. He questioned why U.S. taxpayers — not nuclear plant owners — are on the hook for damages in the event of a meltdown or other accident at a private power plant. And he says states should get more say on plant safety.

Sanders serves on the Senate committee that oversees the NRC, the federal agency that regulates commercial nuclear reactors in the United States.

Sanders last week asked NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko specifically to re-evaluate the license extention the NRC granted the Vermont Yankee reactor in Sanders’ home state in light of the nuclear crisis unfolding at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, which was crippled by the massive earthquake and tsunami.

One day before the massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, the NRC authorized a 20-year extension for the Vermont Yankee reactor in Vernon, Vt., after its 40-year operating license runs out next year.

At the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee briefing and in his letter to Obama, Sanders said it is disturbing that 23 reactors in the United States, including Vermont Yankee, are virtually identical in design to the crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. Federal safety officials have criticized the General Electric design and warned as long ago as 1972 that if the cooling systems ever failed and fuel rods overheated then the containment vessel surrounding the reactor probably would burst, spewing dangerous radiation into the environment.

Sanders’ letter to Obama called for:

  • An independent review by a special presidential commission with broad authority and a mandate to independently review the safety of every existing nuclear reactor and waste site in the United States, in light of the lessons that may be learned from the situation in Japan.
  • A moratorium on all licensing and re-licensing decisions by the NRC. China already is conducting a full review of safety at its nuclear plants and halted new construction. Germany closed seven reactors to review safety. In this country, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant, which is operated by Entergy, the same company that runs Vermont Yankee.
  • Repealing a federal law that indemnifies the nuclear industry. “In the event of a nuclear tragedy in the United States, should the taxpayers of this country be asked to provide billions of dollars in compensation to the victims of such a tragedy or, in a free-enterprise society such as ours, should the nuclear industry itself take full responsibility to secure insurance in the private market for all consequences of such an unthinkable tragedy?” he asks.
  • Withdrawal of an Obama administration request for $36 billion in new lending authority to build more nuclear power plants. Instead, Sanders says existing nuclear loan guarantee funds should be redirected to enhance energy efficiency and to develop safer, more cost-effective energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal.
  • Giving states a say on the safety of nuclear plants. “It will be people who live in the vicinity of nuclear power plants who will have to bear the burden of any tragedy that might occur, and for this reason alone they should play a meaningful role in deciding whether or not the safety risk is acceptable,” Sanders wrote. Sanders also commended Obama for providing assistance to Japan as it grapples with the consequences of the natural disaster and nuclear crisis.

    “It is clear that at the same time we do everything we can to provide such assistance, we have an obligation to learn from this catastrophe and respond accordingly. The proposals I have put forward would ensure that the United States begins a long-needed, thoughtful and critical reconsideration of the safety of our nuclear reactors, and the wisdom of moving forward with a spate of new reactors.”

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    Scott Nance is the publisher of the news site The Washington Current, formerly known as On The Hill. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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