Pilgrim Nuclear Plant shutdowns leave questions unanswered for Outer Cape

By Peter J. Brown
February 23. 2015
Wicked Local Provincetown

Just across the Cape Cod Canal, nestled in the hills of Manomet, Plymouth, sits the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. During the two blizzards — winter storms Juno and Neptune — that struck over the past couple of weeks, Pilgrim was temporarily taken off line twice. And while there was no apparent threat to the public at any time, the decisions to do so have once again raised questions about the ability of plant operators to maintain safe operations at a nuclear power plant that is over 40 years old.

Fukushima Fallout (in pink/red; measured by the US Dept of Energy 25 hours after the accident began) superimposed over map of eastern Massachusetts.

Fukushima Fallout (in pink/red; measured by the US Dept of Energy 25 hours after the accident began) superimposed over map of eastern Massachusetts.

“In preparation for Storm Neptune, Pilgrim Station made the decision to take the plant off line. We are following plant procedures to prepare for a potential loss of offsite power or the grid’s inability to accept the power Pilgrim generates. As always, safety is our number one priority and there is no threat to the safety of plant workers or the general public,” said Meghan Leahy, spokesperson for Entergy Government Affairs on Feb. 14, in an e-mail. Entergy is the plant’s operator.

Danger signs

Keep in mind that even former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko placed Pilgrim on his list of nuclear power plants that needed to be closed down permanently — the sooner the better.

“[Jaczko] has stated his concern publicly about the safety of these aged Mark 1 GE boiler reactors and recommended that they be decommissioned. The Pilgrim plant has the same containment structure that failed to contain hydrogen gas explosions in the Fukushima plant,” stated Rich Delaney, director of Center for Coastal Studies and chair of the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission in a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker dated Jan. 22.

“As you now know it remained shut down for several days [after Juno struck] and then reconnected to the grid on Feb. 7. It powered down again on Feb. 14,” said Maureen Burgess, a Truro selectman who serves as that town’s representative to the Seashore Advisory Commission, where she chairs the subcommittee on Pilgrim Safety Concerns.

While the shutdown during Neptune was performed proactively, the events during Juno cascaded along in such a way as to invite scrutiny at many levels. It started with partial loss of off-site power, followed by failure of a condensate pump motor associated with the plant’s high-pressure coolant injection system. Then came the malfunctioning of one of the plant’s four safety relief valves, and a loss of instrument air resulting in a loss of water level indicators in the seawater intake bays.

Whether these events during Juno spurred plant operators to prudently cease operations during Neptune remains unknown.

“Pilgrim was relicensed for 20 years in 2012 in spite of a sea of protest and concerns about what could be the worst economic and ecological disaster for Massachusetts and make the surrounding areas uninhabitable for generations and poison Cape Cod Bay,” said Burgess. “These areas might include Boston and Cape Cod, depending upon wind direction. Systems are old and subject to deterioration. What appliances do you have in your home that are 40 years old? How old is your car?”

“Entergy has not followed the advice of the NRC’s own experts who came up with suggested safety improvements after the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daichi power station in Japan. At Fukushima, all three nuclear reactor cores melted down and exploded within three days,” added Burgess. “The project was called ‘Fukushima Lessons Learned.’ Entergy has not improved the hardened vents on the plant to reduce a release of radiation in the event of a meltdown and explosion, as suggested by the experts.”

No evacuation plan

While other concerns, including the susceptibility of Pilgrim to a seismic event, are raised time and time again, the most troubling dimension of any discussion of the plant’s safety is the fact that there are no evacuation plans for the Outer Cape, or the entire Cape for that matter.

In his letter to the Governor, Delaney said that the advisory commission supported legislation that would expand the radiological Plume Exposure Emergency Planning Zone around Pilgrim, an approximately 10-mile-radius area, to include all of Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties.

“This commission is unanimous in its ongoing concern about the myriad of issues related to [Pilgrim]. The communities on the Outer/Lower Cape and the National Seashore are located only 20 miles downwind from the plant. We continue to be frustrated that the concerns of the citizens on the Cape are not taken seriously by the plant owners or the [NRC], especially in this post-Fukushima era,” wrote Delaney. “One of the principal concerns is the lack of responsible emergency planning for communities on the Cape which would have to be addressed if the emergency planning zone was to be expanded.”

His letter also pointed out that last November, 74 percent of voters in the Cape & Islands Senatorial District voted yes to a ballot question authorizing the state senator to vote in favor of legislation expanding the emergency planning zone.

Mary-Jo Avellar, who represents Provincetown on the advisory commission, is adamant about shutting down Pilgrim and clearly uncomfortable with the fact that the Outer Cape lies so close to, and directly downwind of, the nuclear plant.

“They need to close it down,” said Avellar. “It is unsafe. And it’s terrifying that here we sit in harm’s way and there is no way out for us. We are stuck.”

She commended Burgess for her hard work on the issue. “Maureen has really done yeoman’s work on this. She has been amazing.”

According to Burgess, in the event of a worse-case scenario at the plant, the plans drawn by the Mass. Emergency Management Agency call for all traffic to be stopped at Exit 4 in Sandwich with the ultimate goal of having everyone on the Cape “shelter in place.”

If everyone, including those tourists who are part of the four million people who visit the Cape Cod National Seashore per year, had to be relocated, “where to remains unknown to us. It is possible that we may be unable to return for days, months, years, perhaps never,” said Burgess. “We have no designated shelters on the Cape, and certainly none that would offer adequate protection. The basement of a typical house would offer 10 to 40 percent protection for a few hours.”

“Our vulnerability has been acknowledged by the industry because our local health departments have been provided with potassium iodide (KI) pills to prevent our thyroid glands from taking up radioiodine. It is unknown how many citizens have availed themselves of these KI pills. So in a sense we have been given a Band-Aid to stop a hemorrhage,” Burgess added. “My concern is that people will see this measure as all they need to do to protect themselves. There are many other radioisotopes that we would not have protection from, e.g., strontium which is absorbed by our bones.”

Public ‘oblivious’

Burgess is most concerned that so many citizens “seem to be oblivious to the danger that lies across the bay. She credits state Rep. Sarah Peake and state Sen. Dan Wolf for putting forth bills “to address the threat to public safety that Pilgrim poses.”

“Now we need Gov. Baker to step up to his charge of ensuring public safety and take on the NRC which licenses Pilgrim. I urge people to let our governor and state and federal representatives know their concerns in this matter,” Burgess said. “An accident is something unexpected and unplanned for. If there is a major radiological event at Pilgrim, we will not be able to call it an accident because too many of us have been anticipating the possible consequences of such an event. It will not be an accident. It will be sheer neglect.”

While Sen. Wolf is mindful of the safety-conscious dimension of a decision to shut down a nuclear plant in advance of a major storm, he is uncomfortable with it at the same time.

“How much confidence does it give us if they have to shut down a nuclear power plant before a storm?” asked Wolf. “What is troubling to me is that each incident there involves its own peculiar set of circumstances. As it ages, it is becoming more unpredictable and inconsistent — two things we don’t want to see with any nuclear plant. And it just gets stranger and stranger.”

“How many warning signs does that plant need to send us?” Wolf asked rhetorically.

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