Kirk, Durbin Probe Nuke Experts

Four of Illinois' reactors are almost identical to those in the Japan crisis

Friday, Mar 25, 2011  |  Updated 9:15 PM CDT
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U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), right, talks with panelists, while U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), looks on during the Illinois Nuclear Safety Forum at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, Friday, March, 25, 2011.

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Illinois should review the size of evacuation zones around its six nuclear power plants and ensure there is a sufficient stockpile of potassium iodide pills, Sens. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin said Friday during a forum on nuclear safety sparked by Japan's unfolding crisis.

"Illinois is the most nuclear state in the country," Kirk said. "We have the largest fleet of 11 reactors and we need to make sure in light of what happened at Fukushima that they're run safely. I think there are some lessons learned."

The forum in a Chicago federal courtroom resembled a congressional hearing with the two Illinois senators on a raised judge's bench quizzing four nuclear experts from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Argonne National Laboratory and Exelon Corp., which operates the reactors in the state.

The officials sought to assure the senators and the public that Illinois' plants are safe and have multiple layers of safeguards designed to prevent the kind of disaster occurring in Japan when a nuclear plant was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. They also pledged to learn additional safety lessons from the disaster.

"The NRC has full confidence that the current fleet of reactors and spent fuel pools are operating in a manner that protects public health and safety," said Cynthia Pederson, deputy regional administrator for the NRC.

Four of the state's reactors are almost identical to those in the Japan crisis. Located at the Dresden and Quad Cities generating stations, they are same model and nearly the same age as those at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant. Nuclear watchdogs and environmental groups have been critical because the reactors got 20-year license extensions after surpassing their original 40-year lifespans.

Kirk and Durbin peppered officials with questions about the safety of the storage of spent fuel rods, some of which are near populated areas and key waterways in the state. Kirk urged that spent fuel be kept separate from reactors so there aren't problems like in Japan. He also wants to revive plans for a waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, although opponents have raised concerns about contamination. Both also are seeking more research into reprocessing nuclear fuel to reduce waste as done in other countries, including France.

"We have a consensus among us here today that we need to reopen the conversation about research involving spent nuclear fuel," Durbin said.

In Illinois, Joseph Klinger, assistant director of the state Emergency Management Agency, told the senators there would be a review of the stockpile of pills that help prevent radiation-induced thyroid cancer and the evacuation zones. Japan has increased the area around the plant where people have been told to evacuate or stay inside to 19 miles and distributed protective iodine pills, although some say belatedly. The standard emergency planning zone around the Illinois plants is 10 miles.

Klinger said there are about 180,000 people in the zones around the state's six plants. In 2002, Klinger said potassium iodide pills were made available to people in those zones. The tablets have since been checked to make sure they are still effective. The state currently has a stockpile of 175,000 pills.

"That's one of the lessons learned that we'll be taking from this Japanese incident is let's reassess what we're doing there, maybe we need to do more in that regard," he said.

Sarah Wochos, a policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, said Friday's forum didn't elicit much new information about nuclear safety in the state. She said she was heartened to hear both senators talk about wanting to move spent fuel away from the Great Lakes and glad they had initiated this review of Illinois plants.

"Given that our state has a strong nuclear presence, it sounds like they will be committed to pursuing this going forward and we appreciate that," she said.

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