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Nuclear Regulator Faces Tough Questions About Plymouth Plant

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Until the Japanese disaster, the opposition to the nuclear power plant in Plymouth had become as sleepy as a town on the Cape in winter. But the damage at the Fukushima plant has awakened fears among many people who live near Pilgrim, especially those on Cape Cod.

The federal government's nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, recently held a rare Q & A session about Pilgrim. About 80 people asked questions about safety, evacuation plans and the re-licensing process.

James Clifford, who lives in Wellfleet, said his "main concern is that we have the storage pool populated with a number of spent fuel rods that’s much greater than the original design for the facility. I think the original design was for around 800 and it now has over 2,000." He went on to ask, "what percentage of those spent fuel rods in the spent fuel pool would be eligible to be moved into dry cask storage?"

"A large percentage of that fuel that’s in that pool can be moved to dry fuel storage," replied Don Jackson, the branch chief for the NRC. "However, the NRC has determined that either dry fuel storage or storage in the spent fuel pool in the plant is a safe method to store that fuel."

But there is no dry cask storage on site at Pilgrim. Building that would be required for license renewal. The plant is currently looking to get a 20-year extension.

For that to happen, as far as Diane Turco, of Harwich, is concerned, they should expand the evacuation zone from 10 miles to 50 miles so it includes the Cape. Especially, she said, in light of the fact that the NRC said the Fukushima plant should have a 50-mile evacuation zone.

"Are the citizens of CC in any risk if there is a radiological accident at the Pilgrim Nuclear power station?" Turco asked.

"I would say that the current emergency plans with the Pilgrim plant are deemed adequate, and the reason for that is if there were to be an event at the Pilgrim Nuclear Station, the level of interaction between state and federal government would allow decision-making to occur faster, more robustly, such that the folks on Cape Cod would be protected," Jackson said.

Jackson added that the NRC is not re-evaluating evacuation plans as part of Pilgrim's license renewal because that's something they monitor everyday. And while the NRC has formed a task force to look at lessons from the Fukushima disaster, this will also not factor into whether Pilgrim’s license is renewed.

This prompted jeers and moans from audience members, who said it was irresponsible for the NRC to let Pilgrim keep operating past 2012 without applying changes in the wake of Japan's crisis.

Mary Lampert, a longtime anti-nuclear activist who runs the citizens group Pilgrim Watch, said for one thing, the Plymouth facility should add backup generators.

"The main problem at Fukushima was loss of offsite power and the in ability of the backup system to carry forward. This was due to the earthquake [and] tsunami," Lampert said. "But what hasn’t been discussed, and I’d like to you to consider, is moving to passive systems, systems that do not require electric power."

The NRC said the task force is looking at the issue of backup and emergency power supplies in light of Japan.

Meanwhile, the opposition to re-licensing Pilgrim is building. There will be a citizens forum on nuclear safety in Duxbury next week.

Attorney General Martha Coakley wants the NRC to hold off re-licensing until the Japanese disaster is better understood. So does Rep. Ed Markey. Markey also said the NRC needs to explain what happened in early May, when the Pilgrim plant had an emergency shutdown because of human error. But the opposition is facing an uphill battle — the NRC has never denied re-licensing of a nuclear power plant.

Earlier Coverage:

This program aired on June 6, 2011.


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