Sep. 10, 2015, Cape Cod Times
Expand evacuation zone now
This past week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared what many opponents of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station have argued for years: That the Plymouth-based nuclear power plant has serious deficiencies. In fact, the NRC put the Entergy-owned facility in a category reserved for lowest-performing reactors in the country. Whether the report will result in a massive overhaul at the four-decade old plant or lead to an actual shutdown is uncertain at this point, but one thing is certain: Pilgrim cannot continue as it has.
The decades-long battle over Pilgrim has hinged on a number of issues, but none more pressing than the level of safety in and around the facility. The NRC report cites Pilgrim’s recent history of forced shutdowns and equipment failures, as well as Entergy’s inability to address the underlying causes of the problems. The NRC will conduct an additional inspection to assess the overall condition of Pilgrim, and could take further action, including potentially shutting down the plant.
On the same day the NRC report became public, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he believes the plant is safe, and that he and his administration would defer to the NRC in terms of handling the issue, saying “we’re going to let them lead this one.” That response drew a sharp rebuke from state Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich. Wolf, an outspoken opponent of the continued operation of the plant, said the state must not sit idly by and wait for a federal regulatory agency to deal with what is very much a local issue as well, and in a press release called on the governor to get on the “right side of science, and the right side of history.”
“For Governor Baker to announce that he is going to ‘let them (the NRC) lead this one’ is to abandon our citizens,” Wolf wrote. “The NRC should not and cannot be the only watchdog of our commonwealth’s health and safety. As public officials, elected and appointed, we need to do what it takes — whatever it takes — to end this public safety threat.”
Baker backpedalled the next day, releasing a letter to Entergy that called on the company “to ensure the safety of the plant’s operations and that of all the residents of the commonwealth that live in proximity to the plant.”
One area where Baker could make good on this exhortation would be to work toward an expansion of the definition of “proximity.” Currently, there is a federally mandated 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around the plant. That means that in the event of a catastrophe at the plant, the priority would be the evacuation of people living within 10 miles of it. The remaining area residents, including those who live on Cape Cod, would likely be encouraged to shelter in place until the initial evacuation has been completed.
Many critics of Pilgrim have pointed out that given that the Cape is downwind of Pilgrim, we would quickly bear the brunt of any radiation contamination, and should therefore be included in the evacuation zone. It is important to note that the 10-mile zone is the minimum required under federal law. After the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, the NRC recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone around that facility.
The NRC’s damning report is only the latest bad news for Entergy. In addition to Pilgrim, there are two other nuclear reactors at the bottom of the NRC’s list, and both are also owned by the company. This suggests a pattern of neglect that must be corrected if Entergy is to continue to operate such facilities. At the same time, the state cannot simply stand by and wait to see if Entergy makes the necessary improvements. At the very least, the announcement by the NRC should lead to the immediate implementation of a wider evacuation zone around Pilgrim; a zone that must include Cape Cod.