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An explosion has rocked a third reactor at the plant and a fourth reactor has caught fire, prompting officials to order 140,000 people living nearby to stay indoors.
In Massachusetts there is one nuclear plant of similar design to the damaged site in Japan, called the Pilgrim Power Station in Plymouth. The operators assured state officials Monday that the facility is safe.
The Pilgrim Power Station provides electricity for about 600,000 homes, or around 8 percent of the state's total energy demand, according to a plant spokesman.
But the emergency across the world is reminding residents of the reactor in their own town.
The Pilgrim Power Station provides electricity for about 600,000 homes.
If you follow the coastline past the mansions and seaside cottages, you eventually pass a big concrete tower on the beach. It's hard to see it through the trees, but it's clearly of another era, all the way back to the 1960s.
"It looks like a fortress," said Brendan Duggan, 17. He lives nearby and said he didn't really think much about the Pilgrim Power Station until the earthquake and resulting tsunami wrecked similar nuclear plants in Japan.
"It took a big disaster to mess up the one in Japan," he said. "As long as the earthquake or the tides don't get too rough out here, then I don't think we have that much of a problem."
Terri Jones is less relaxed. She lives about four blocks away from the plant, in Manomet.
"I wish the contract would end," she said.
The contract is set to expire next year.
Representatives from Pilgrim have spent the last few days reassuring people of the plant's safety. Spokesman Dave Tarantino said it requires a 48-hour security check for outsiders to enter the plant, so he described the reactor while sitting in my car.
"It's a boiling water reactor. We use uranium to create steam through the fission process," he said.
It's basically a giant pressure cooker. As in Japan, Pilgrim uses sea water to cool the reactor.
Tarantino said, "in the unlikely event of an accident in which there was fuel damage," a containment structure would keep the radioactive material inside.
Think of a giant steel bulb placed over a pressure cooker.
That's the same type of containment structure as the plants in Japan. But Tarantino said that's where the comparison with Japan ends.
"The geology is not the same. The things that happened over in Japan really can't happen here," he said.
He's right. Massachusetts is not located on a major fault line, and the only East Coast tsunami on record hit Newfoundland after an earthquake in 1929. It apparently didn't affect our coast.
Tarantino said this reactor is built to withstand lower level earthquakes and storm surges. And Pilgrim has weathered quite a few Nor'easters just fine, he said.
But the images of failing nuclear reactors in Japan may make a community that's already uneasy about nuclear power, downright scared.
"We just have to call a time out," Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey told New England Cable News Monday. He said we should, "examine whether or not those safety features, which are going to be necessary in the future, are going to be built into new nuclear power plants in our country."
Markey called for a moratorium on siting nuclear power plants in seismically active areas. He said he knows Pilgrim is not located near a major fault line*, but wants greater scrutiny of existing plants.
It's not clear what this will mean for Pilgrim. The power station is under review for a new license; it's current permit expires in 2012.
Tarantino said the plant provides energy for around 8 percent of the the state's total energy demand.
Nuclear power supporters say that would be hard to replace with other power sources. And it's too soon to know whether the problems in Japan have any implications for Pilgrim, or any other reactors in the U.S.
Correction: The broadcast version of this report said Rep. Markey knows Pilgrim is not located near a fault line. Markey said he knows the plant is not located near a "major" fault line.
This program aired on March 15, 2011.
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