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Sen. Kirk's opening remarks at nuclear safety forum

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., released the following copy of his opening remarks at Friday’s Illinois Nuclear Facilities Safety Forum as prepared for delivery:

It has been two weeks since the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck the eastern shores of Fukushima, sending shock waves across the world and creating the biggest humanitarian and nuclear crises Japan has faced since World War II. The short, medium and long-term pathways and consequences of nuclear material remain dangerously uncertain.  

First, I want to take a moment to commend our troops and the ongoing international relief efforts to support the Japanese people in the wake of this natural disaster. I would like to thank the panelists here with us today to share their insights on nuclear energy safety and to help us begin to piece together the national and local lessons to be learned from Fukushima. A number of things are clear following this disaster.  First, America continues to need nuclear power. Second, it is imperative that we quickly build Yucca Mountain to relocate spent fuel away from our nation’s largest source of drinking water – the Great Lakes. Third, moving forward, it is common sense that we not build reactors or storage facilities on fault lines or other potential natural disaster areas.

Despite the unfortunate events in Japan, we should continue to rely on nuclear energy as a source of domestic power.  This zero-emission energy helps us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, thus bolstering our national security and improving our economy. Nuclear power takes on particular importance in Illinois, as nearly half of the power generation in the state is nuclear, and 11 of the 104 operating nuclear power plants and stations in the United States are here in Illinois.

But as we press forward with nuclear power generation, we must solve our nuclear waste problem.  It appears that spent nuclear fuel poses just as serious a threat as a core meltdown.  Fukushima crews struggle to maintain water levels in the fuel pool at Unit 4 to prevent the escape of uncontained radiation into the environment.  We just learned this week that Tokyo water officials issued a warning that infants in the capital and surrounding areas should not drink the tap water due to the detection of elevated levels or radioactive iodine.

This warning should serve as the beginning of a renewed effort to remove all spent fuel away from our drinking water sources.  Located along the shore of Lake Michigan, the Zion nuclear station holds approximately 1,100 tons of nuclear waste in spent fuel pools awaiting permanent storage.  This is unacceptable.  The Great Lakes provide drinking water to 30 million Americans, and Lake Michigan water withdrawals account for nearly half of the water taken from the Great Lakes each year.

The U.S. has spent more than 25 years and approximately $10 billion developing Yucca Mountain to avoid costly and potentially dangerous short-term fuel storage options.  We should end the political stalemate and store our fuel at Yucca Mountain, which is tucked away more than 100 miles from the nearest population.  Yucca would provide a secure centralized storage facility that is better protected than our existing grid of scattered storage facilities across the country.  As of January 2010, 35 commercial sites in the United States stored approximately 63,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in dry casks and spent fuel pools.  While Nevada politicians bicker with the rest of the country, these short-term storage facilities have already cost taxpayers $960 million since the early eighties.

Floods, tornados, and earthquakes are all natural disasters for which we should be prepared.  The Great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, remembered for ringing church bells in Boston, sent series of shock waves through the region.  It is largest earthquake of its kind east of the Rocky Mountains, and produced tremors with nearly a magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale.

Illinois is one of five states situated along the New Madrid fault line.  While no nuclear reactor in Illinois is close to this fault line in Southern Illinois, it is imperative that we are prepared for the effects of a natural event of this magnitude that could be felt across the central United States and directly affect all regions of Illinois.

Moving forward we need to be certain not to build new nuclear power plants in earthquake zones or along shorelines.  Six reactor units in the American nuclear fleet have the same design and Mark 1 containment as those in Fukushima Daiichi, two of which are located at Dresden and Quad Cities.  Nuclear power operations need to be able to withstand the unlikely, but possible 1-2 punch, such as an earthquake followed by another disaster, like a tsunami.  After all, it was the tsunami that triggered the nuclear disaster, wiping out AC and backup power sources to the necessary cooling pumps.

Unfortunately, it often takes a nuclear accident like those experienced at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now, Fukushima, to begin forward-thinking discussions like we will have here today.  My hope is that we can have a frank dialogue on preventative measures to ensure the safe operation and maintenance of all U.S. nuclear power units, to secure and properly store spent nuclear fuel, and to determine the capable backup procedures that will stand against the most serious scenarios of chronic power outages and station blackouts.

I’ll have a few other issues to highlight during questions, but it’s good to see you all this afternoon.  I look forward to your thoughts on these important issues.Thank you, Senator Durbin.

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