Pilgrim nuclear meltdown risk spurs Cape lawmakers to action

By Kaimi Rose Lum
Provincetown Banner
Posted Jan 17, 2013 @ 09:40 AM


Concerned for the safety of Cape Codders, who live downwind of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station and in the state-declared “ingestion zone” of potential radioactive fallout, state Rep. Sarah Peake and state Sen. Dan Wolf are pushing for laws that will heighten emergency planning efforts and force the aging plant to address safety issues relating to the thousands of spent fuel rods stored in its attic.

“What I’m trying to do and what Sen. Wolf is trying to do is look out as best we can for our constituents as well as the tens of thousands of visitors [to the Cape],” Peake said on Monday.

Peake said she would file three bills in the State House this week. The first would require an assessment of Barnstable and adjacent counties’ readiness for a radiological disaster and a study of the risk at the Pilgrim and Seabrook power plants, with a report due back next Jan. 1. The second would enable the state Dept. of Public Health to establish proper air monitoring on the Cape. And the third would expand the radius of the emergency-planning zone, which currently extends just 10 miles from the plant, to include all of Cape Cod and Cape Ann.

Peake made the announcement at Monday’s meeting of the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission, which resembled a summit of local leaders galvanized to action in the wake of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 2012 decision to relicense the 40-year-old plant — a decision Peake said was characterized by experts as sheer “folly.”

Seth Rolbein, chief policy advisor to Sen. Dan Wolf, said Wolf would co-sponsor the measures in the State Senate and “take it a little bit further” by introducing one of his own bills. The legislation Wolf is proposing would impose a large fee on Entergy, owner of the Pilgrim plant, for every extra fuel rod kept in wet storage on the premises. It would reduce the fee for every rod that is moved into dry storage.

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth was built in 1972, after the same model as the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, which was built at roughly the same time and which became the site of nuclear disaster in 2011 after several of its reactors melted down following an earthquake and tsunami. Like Fukushima, the Pilgrim plant contains a core reactor at the center. Above that is the pool containing the used-up fuel rods, which are so hot they must be cooled in water for at least five years before they can be moved to dry storage.

A number of the rods “have come to the end of wet storage. They have to move to dry. The question is how fast,” Rolbein said. “We want to get everything that is more than five years [old] out of there.”

The plant was designed to hold 880 spent fuel rods. It now holds 3,200, Rolbein said.
“We’re setting up a financial incentive for the plant to do what we think is better for our communities,” he said of Wolf’s legislation. “It’s one more way to address the issue. We’re very concerned that, try as we might, do as we might, an evacuation plan of this peninsula in the event of a disaster is not tenable.”

Right now, there is no evacuation plan for Cape Codders should there be a “release” from the Plymouth plant.

On Oct. 3, MEMA director Kurt Schwarz told Barnstable County’s Regional Emergency Planning Committee that because the Cape is located outside of the federally mandated 10-mile emergency planning zone, “We are not thinking about asking you to evacuate … because you are far enough away that you are not in the inhalation danger zone.” If anything, traffic could be prohibited from leaving the Cape for six hours after a meltdown, because it could interfere with the evacuation of people in the 10-mile inhalation zone around the plant, Schwartz told the committee.

The main danger facing Cape residents is the radioactive material that could drift this way on a north or northwest wind. Then there would be a long-term risk of people ingesting the material, the MEMA director said. Over a period of days, post-accident, the state would map out the areas where high levels of radioactive materials have settled to the ground, seal off all the roads in and out, send in rescuers wearing protective clothing and move out everything that’s still alive, he said. Those areas “may well be closed to anyone for years to come,” Schwarz said.

Supplies of potassium iodide pills, which protect the thyroid gland, have been provided to Cape towns to distribute to residents forced to shelter in place after a nuclear meltdown. But the pills have a shelf life. At Monday’s meeting, Seashore Advisory Commission member Maureen Burgess, Truro’s representative, pointed out that Truro’s supply is set to expire in 2013. So is the supply set aside for employees of the National Seashore, a Seashore official said.

George Price, Seashore superintendent, said that because the 44,000 acres of the Seashore are intermixed with Cape towns, the park needs to join all the groups striving to address the Pilgrim nuclear threat “to have our plans work.”
“As a member of the community of the Outer Cape, we are obviously very concerned — for our employees as well as our visitors,” Price said. “This now has risen to the top of the list.”

Some said the best solution lies not in any emergency planning but in a complete shut-down of the Pilgrim plant, which has exceeded its own shelf life and is now operating on outdated technology. Designed to run for 40 years, the plant was supposed to be decommissioned in 2012. Last year, ignoring the opposition of local and state officials and legislators, the NRC voted to re-license it for another 20 years.
Fukushima, with similar technology as the Pilgrim plant, melted down at 39 years old.

“Same reactor, same design, same vents — and they failed,” Harwich resident Diane Turco, of the organization Cape Downwinders, said on Monday. “I met two NRC officials and asked if Fukushima could happen here, and they said yes.”

Turco told the commission that the NRC has the authority to shut down any reactor “deemed not to provide reasonable assurance of the protection of public health and safety.” That mandate is clearly stated on the NRC’s website.

“I think people really need to start raising their voices and say ‘Shut it down,’”
Turco said.

“There’s no escape for the Cape, and we need to refuse to be radiation refugees.”

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