Fukushima – weighing risks, offering options
March 11 will be the second anniversary of the devastation of the nuclear power facility in Fukushima, Japan. I hope all Kingstonians will take a minute to contemplate how that disaster – half a world away – holds important lessons for us.
The nuclear reactor at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth is the same design as those in Fukushima. This reactor sits only 10 miles from most of our homes in Kingston. Although a great tsunami initiated the disaster, the actual cause of the explosions and enormous release of radioactivity at Fukushima was the lack of electricity – electricity needed to operate pumps which cool the reactor itself and the nuclear waste reservoir.
Plymouth’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station – owned and operated by Entergy Corporation of Louisiana – is 40 years old and was recently relicensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for another 20 years. The facility was originally planned to operate for 40 years, but, despite concern from local residents and town officials, the NRC decided to go ahead and re-license it without requiring Entergy to abide by new safety guidelines developed since Fukushima.
Kingston Town Meeting approved an article last April that asked the NRC to require Entergy to suspend approval of Entergy’s new license until full implementation of safety improvements based on the Fukushima experience had occurred. Ten other towns in the region also approved similar town meeting articles or ballot questions. Despite those requests and others from state, federal and local officials, the NRC granted Pilgrim’s license renewal.
Since that time, many of us who are concerned about the risks of continued operations at the Plymouth facility have been meeting and continuing activities to try to protect our area from a fate similar to Fukushima’s. I work with the umbrella group Pilgrim Coalition. Various member organization have been working to get the NRC to do its job of “protecting people and the environment.” We have worked with federal, state, and town officials, relevant state and federal agencies and others to lessen the chances that such a disaster happen here.
Here are a few specific issues and concerns we are addressing:
Radioactive waste. At the Pilgrim facility, radioactive spent fuel rods are stored in a reservoir, a “spent fuel pool” that was originally designed to hold 880 rods. It now holds four times that number. At the time this pool was designed, the federal government had promised that a federal permanent repository would be created – where these rods would be taken to be stored safely while the radioactivity they contained would be contained for the thousands of years it will take to lose its potency. There has been no such repository designated, and the NRC now indicates that these rods will be stored in place (in Plymouth) indefinitely.
Lack of protective filters on reactor vents. Since Fukushima, the NRC staff has recommended that filters be added to the vents on all 31 U.S Mark I and Mark II reactors’ containment vessels, and local residents and state representatives have sent many letters supporting that recommendation. Any day now NRC commissioners will rule on whether to actually require those filters, but despite the commission’s own staff endorsement, Bloomberg news reports (3/1/13) that commissioners are still divided on whether to require this mitigation because they are being pressured by intense lobbying from the nuclear industry – which says requiring mitigation would hurt their financial bottom line.
Outmoded reactor cooling system. The Pilgrim reactor is cooled by a “once through” system which daily cycles 510 million gallons of water from Cape Cod Bay and returns it, heated, to the bay. There is evidence that this process kills fish and plant life and degrades the bay. A better system, so-called “closed loop,” would go a long way toward restoring and maintaining a healthy ecosystem there.
A nuclear accident here is not “unthinkable.” A “perfect storm” of events could cause a meltdown and major release of radiation. I hope you will check out www.pilgrimcoalition.org and help us pressure officials to insist the NRC approve and enforce regulations that will protect us from another disaster – one which could change our lives forever.