Sens. Durbin, Kirk hold nuclear forum

March 25, 2011 3:39:59 PM PDT
Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk joined nuclear experts at a forum in response to the concerns in Japan.

There are most probably many lessons to be learned as there were after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They usually take a while to fully understand. But with Illinois having more nuclear reactors and more nuclear waste than any other state, both Illinois senators wanted to get some questions on the record with the experts. Their hearing, they say, is not about creating fear.

"What is happening in Japan is a reminder of vulnerability and a reminder that we need to be watchful and be prepared," said Durbin.

It may take weeks, months or more to understand the specifics of Japan's naturally-induced nuclear nightmare. But there are two nuke plants in Illinois - Dresden and Quad-Cities - that are the same design and vintage as the Fukishima Daiichi plant in Japan.

To be sure, tsunamis present no challenge in Illinois, but tornados do, so do floods, even the possibility of quakes. So if there is disaster here, are our older plants better prepared than their counterparts in Japan?

"There are major differences?between U.S. power plants and Japanese power plants despite the fact that the original designs are similar," said Charles Pardee, Exelon.

The Dresden and Quad-Cities plants have been upgraded with two things apparently not present at Fukishima: an ability to vent gases before they would cause an explosion, and multiple off-site power back-ups, so that fuel rods in theory would always remain submerged in their cooling pools.

"We will definitely look at this and exam whether we should make changes in the future, but we are confident nothing is immediately necessary," said Cynthia Pederson, Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Part of Friday's discussion focused on spent nuclear fuel. Illinois has over 7,000 metric tons of it stored in cooling pools or dry casks at Exelon plants. Much of it is kept at the former Zion station a couple hundred yards from Lake Michigan.

Mark Kirk has long argued that's a bad idea, though some experts say it's not unsafe in its temporary quarters.

"The story in pools and dry casks is safe, but it is not a permanent solution, and I think everybody would agree with that.But it is being safely and securely stored in pools and dry casks and that can be done for decades," said Mark Peters, Argonne National Lab

Kirk wants to green-light the long debated, and now stalled Yucca mountain nevada location as the permanent home for spent fuel.

"I think in the end Congress needs to win to fight and win the battle to build the Yucca Mountain facility so that we can store nuclear waste 1,000 feet below the surface," Kirk said.

"There are a lot of options out there. But I have supported Yucca in the past and I am not walking away from that. I just think we need to consider the other options as well," said Durbin.

Durbin wants to regenerate talk about reprocessing spent nuclear fuel which many other countries have done for years as opposed to one-time use and then storing it for generations.

Kirk supports that idea too, but he says the Yucca Mountain storage project needs to go forward.