By JANET AZAROVITZ
We have just passed the second anniversary of the catastrophic meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11 of 2011. It will remain as one of the three most devastating radiological events in the history of the world. Its effects will be felt for generation after generation to come. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth has been repeatedly linked to this disaster in many recent media stories because of numerous failures during the “super storms” that have hit our area. It is a GE Mark I design, one of 23 nuclear energy plants in the US of similar design, the same as the failed reactors in Japan.
Three meteorological events of note—Hurricane Sandy, Winter Storm Nemo and the last snowstorm—caused repeated shutdowns because of off-site power loss. During this period of time, there were two safety valve malfunctions which could have exacerbated the weather-related shutdowns. Ironically during the last snowstorm there was an accident in Plymouth involving an SUV that caused the vehicle to knock over a telephone pole, whereby communication was lost between the plant, the EOC (emergency operations center), and the fire and police departments for a short time.
As with the Fukushima meltdown, unexpected meteorological events and unexpected failures in the supply of electricity were to blame. A catastrophic tsunami caused by an earthquake was blamed initially, but it was the loss of electricity that brought the reactors to the point of melting down. Though chances of that happening in Plymouth are nowhere near as probable, Pilgrim was named by the NRC as the second most vulnerable to core damage by earthquake of all nuclear energy facilities in the country. This by virtue of the fact that Pilgrim was built in 1972 and is now among the oldest operating in the world.
In the 1960s and 1970s the government knew about earthquake risks on the West Coast and therefore built them there and anticipated they would withstand large quakes. But new surveying technology has revealed fault lines in the central and eastern states where there was no expectation of sizable quakes and therefore they are not suited to survive the serious stresses of a large quake. Age is certainly the most relevant factor in vulnerability of nuclear power plants. Pilgrim was designed and built to operate for 40 years.
In 1999, when deregulation came to be, the Pilgrim plant was bought by Entergy Corporation along with a few other profitable plants. They now own 12. Though Pilgrim was meant to be decommissioned in 2012 by design, Entergy continues to make billions of dollars by pushing the limits with some help from the NRC, which is entirely supportive of the nuclear industry, and which weakens and changes regulations to fit the situation. It was relicensed in 2012 for another 20 years beyond its intended use. The regulating organization has never turned down a relicensing of any nuclear power plant. This fact is something to think about.
Over the past several years, in the natural process of aging to be expected, minor corrosion incidents have caused leaks in underground or buried pipes at several US nuclear power plants, contaminating groundwater with minor levels of radioactive material, primarily tritium and in some cases, strontium. Most notable for the leakage of tritium, of course, is Hanford, Washington, site of the oldest nuclear energy plant and storage facility, cooled by the majestic Columbia River. It is the largest contaminated site in the US where in the last week the governor has announced that six tanks are leaking their toxic waste into the rivers and the groundwater surrounding the reservation.
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen and is a major problem for many nuclear power plants. As a matter of fact, tritium leaks are occurring at 48 of 65 sites and at least 37 of these facilities contain concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standards. This is basically due to the deterioration of the pipes buried beneath these aging plants. Pilgrim has acknowledged leaking tritium for years. This is true for other Entergy plants as well and includes the Fitzpatrick plant in upstate New York, the Indian Point Plant near Buchanan, New York, the Palisades in Covert, Michigan, and Vermont Yankee. They all have numerous underground leaks of tritium. We’ve been told “not to worry,” that it has not reached a level for the public to be concerned. But any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how slight, boosts cancer risk, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
At the time of the epic winter snowstorms we’ve endured, including the Blizzacane Nemo and the second immense storm a week later, local and national press across the US as well as two NPR programs reported that the failures at Pilgrim exceed the industry averages for automatic shutdowns and unplanned power changes. This, according to NRC regulators and their nuclear experts. Three off-site power lines that provide electricity for plant safety systems were knocked out of service. The plant was shut down, brought back and shut down again. This is another reason that Pilgrim is being compared to Fukushima reactor meltdowns … failure of off-site powering to keep the plant running and concern about providing the cooling necessary for the spent fuel pool. These last shutdowns account for the seventh unplanned shutdown in two years. Of the seven, five were unexpected outages and two were unplanned power changes. Repairs had been made, only to fail and shut down once again.
We all should be very concerned that Entergy is prioritizing profit over maintenance and safety. The plant is too old and the repeated occurrence of shutdowns is a frightening prospect. These occurrences are not the first warning signals that Pilgrim has experienced. Even the chairman of the NRC in 2012, Gregory Jaczko, who was forced to resign because of his dissenting votes, disapproved the issuance of the license renewal in June 2012, stating that there remained unresolved issues in light of the findings of the federal government Blue Ribbon review after Fukushima. The most recent failures at the plant have evoked many comparisons to what happened in Japan, of course.
In addition, in October, with the advent of Hurricane Sandy, Pilgrim was one of several nuclear plants that were literally on a watch list because of the anticipated high winds and high tides that were expected to accompany the storm on its path from the south. Had the storm traveled the predicted path and not slowed down, the tides could have surged, causing flooding of the Plymouth site with possible catastrophic changes. Pilgrim and Oyster Creek, New Jersey, were two plants in particular that were worrisome to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Sandy’s tidal surge came within inches of Oyster Creek’s emergency generators.
But of course, we were very lucky and escaped with little damage by comparison. I’ve only touched on the concerns coming to light every day. Evacuation planning is another source of great concern. In October, the director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Kurt Schwartz, who is also the state deputy director of Homeland Security, told an assembled audience of legislators and Cape Cod emergency directors that there is no plan for evacuation of residents and that they will be, quote, “in harm’s way” were there a radiological incident at Pilgrim. On that day we were told that we were to shelter in place and wait.
The public has been told that they could shelter at the Massachusetts Military Reservation but, in truth, there is no shelter there suitable if a radiological accident were to occur. There’s to be another study of traffic management, which will probably take years. In the meantime, residents should start to bone up on the requirements for sheltering in their homes. Residents who have been following the problems at Pilgrim are beginning to ask that the plant be shut down, and several Cape towns have petitioned to have public input into the decision that concerns hundreds of thousands of citizens (practically doubled when visited by tourists in the summer months). And that is how it should be.
We have learned that the NRC is not the instrument for safety regulation that it is purported to be. Nuclear power is no longer spoken of in terms of safety, it is now being considered only in terms of risk. Worldwide, the energy produced by the nuclear facilities is becoming less and less profitable and nowhere near the answer to solving our energy needs. Homeowners must realize that damage caused by radiological incidents or in the extreme case, meltdowns, is not covered by insurance. In fact, the corporations owning these businesses are not covered by any commercial insurance companies.
Jeffrey Imelt, CEO of General Electric, the largest supplier and pioneer of atomic equipment, says nuclear is no longer a viable producer of energy because of the burgeoning problems, what with the immense cost of maintaining the industry as well as the lowering of the costs of alternative forms—solar, wind and gas. Germany, acknowledged as a technological leader, is decommissioning all of its nuclear plants and focusing on research and promotion of alternative solutions to produce energy for their needs.
Why should we have to live in fear of a nuclear catastrophe that would change the Cape forever? A disaster that we have been told by NRC representatives could be “another” Fukushima? Why should we wait until Entergy is bankrupted because of costs of a bad and worsening financial deal? Why put us in any further risk? The plant should be shut down and the onerous task of nuclear waste disposal undertaken before any more is produced.
Why should we, our families, our future on this wonderful land take a back seat to the making of profit benefiting a corporation? To the question of “where would our electricity come from?” the fact is the Cape gets only about 2 percent (up to 14 percent to the whole state from the grid) of its electricity from Pilgrim and we have safer, cheaper, cleaner energy sources that are renewable and job-creating. We should take the cue from one of the leading technological countries in their decision to stop all electricity produced by nuclear energy and rid ourselves of this ever-growing shadow on our lives.