Decommissioning process still poses substantial risk to public, new director argues.
PLYMOUTH — The state’s top emergency planning official is objecting to a federal exemption allowing owners of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to shrink the current 10-mile emergency planning zone around the reactor down to the plant’s property line.
Samantha Phillips, the new director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, says the “all hazards plan” the state uses for other emergencies would not provide an adequate response for a nuclear accident.
The emergency planning for the zone around the nuclear plant should remain in place until all 3,000 radioactive spent fuel assemblies, currently sitting in a pool on the site, are transferred to heavy steel and cement dry casks, she said.
“The Commonwealth’s overriding interest at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is to maintain public safety,” Phillips says in her letter to Scott Wall, manager of the Division of Operating Reactor Licensing, a branch of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. “While the type and probability of public safety risks at a nuclear power station evolve and reflect whether a plant is active or inactive, a nuclear power station undergoing decommissioning and deconstruction nonetheless presents substantial and complex risks to public safety, especially when spent fuel remains in the spent fuel pool.”
The Plymouth reactor ceased operation May 31. Longtime owner, Entergy Corp., then sold the plant in August to Holtec International, which will handle decommissioning.
Based on a vote earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will allow the elimination of the emergency planning zone, which encompasses sections of Plymouth, Kingston, Carver and Duxbury, come April.
With that elimination comes the loss of about $2 million in annual funding for those towns to be put toward safety training, staffing, equipment and expenses.
Meanwhile, staff at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station continues to be reduced. Staff was cut from about 580 workers to 270 shortly after the reactor shut down. The next staff cut is set for March, when the number will drop to 135 workers.
“The Commonwealth is deeply concerned that such a reduction in on-site personnel will result in reliance on state and local off-site personnel to address hazardous and potentially catastrophic events at PNPS, such as spent fuel uncovering, fires affecting radioactive materials, and construction accidents,” Phillips wrote.
But Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for Holtec, argued staffing remains robust.
“Pilgrim Station continues to maintain four strong, talented emergency planning teams,” O’Brien said in an email. He added that the exemption from the emergency planning zone requirement was granted “based on science and the low potential for an emergency to expand past the site boundary after the fuel has cooled in the pool for an appropriate amount of time.”
Holtec has said the fuel should all be transferred into dry casks by the end of 2022.
Prior to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s vote to grant the exemption to the emergency planning zone, state and federal legislators voiced their opposition.
Federal emergency management officials had expressed concern with the commission’s assumption that state and local responders could provide necessary assistance at the plant during a nuclear emergency, and at the same time evacuate citizens from the 10-mile area around the plant.
Using the “all hazards plan” places “an inappropriate and undue burden on local communities nearby PNPS,” Phillips said. “State and Local agencies will be required to maintain significant and hazardous responsibilities to ensure public safety and disaster response at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. Such essential obligations include developing and implementing a wide-scale evacuation and sheltering program.”
Mary Lampert, president of the Pilgrim Watch citizens group, said the damage caused by a nuclear accident, even with the plant shutdown, would be devastating.
“Until all spent fuel has been moved from the spent fuel pool into dry casks, the risk of a spent fuel pool fire remains, resulting from acts of malice, a fuel handling accident during transfer, equipment failure or human error.” Lampert said. “The NRC estimated that the offsite consequences of a major pool fire could include contaminating as much as 38,610 square miles of land, forcing the evacuation of millions, and trillions of dollars in damages.”
Jeff Baran was the sole commission member to vote against granting the exemption. Although Pilgrim is shut down, Baran said, “EPZs should be in place to provide defense-in-depth because the probability of an accident involving a significant release of radioactive material, although small, is not zero.”
David Lochbaum, former director of the Nuclear Safety Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed with Baran’s concern. He said maintaining an emergency planning zone is “akin to passengers on cruise ships having a reserved spot in a lifeboat along with a life preserver.”
“Eliminating emergency planning with irradiated fuel in the spent fuel pool is gambling with American lives as table stakes,” Lochbaum said.
Attorney General Maura Healey sued the commission last month for approving the transfer of Pilgrim’s license from Entergy Corp. to Holtec International without first listening to what state officials and the public had to say about it. Healey contends Holtec is inexperienced in decommissioning and will likely run out of money before the job is done.
Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.