Neighbors Push Pilgrim Nuclear for Transparency

Case in Land Court challenges proposed dry-cask storage system and its location — 100 feet from the coastal zone and about 25 feet above mean sea level.

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Neighbors of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station are fighting the installation of up to 40 dry casks to store spent fuel rods out of concern that current plans don’t adequately address the dangers of climate change, terrorist attacks and environmental contamination.

Having a nuclear power plant in Plymouth’s backyard is “the card that has been dealt to the town,” said Karen Vale, campaign manager for Cape Cod Bay Watch, a public interest group. Still, “we want dry-cask storage done to the highest standards possible. But the way it’s being designed and built, it’s not really meeting the mark.”

Entergy Corp., which owns the Pilgrim facility, vouches for the system’s safety and security, and town representatives have provided their full support by granting the nuclear power generator an unconditional building permit earlier this year.

A group of residents appealed this decision to the Zoning Board, but ultimately lost its bid in a 3-2 vote in late July. The group then took the matter to Massachusetts Land Court, with the hope that a favorable decision would force the Zoning Board to reconsider its decision and have Entergy apply for a special permit. No court date has yet been set, but the assigned judge ordered Entergy to give a 90-day notice before moving any spent fuel to the new dry-cask storage system.

“We feel that we owe it to future generations to make sure that this is done properly so that our community can be protected from any potential accidents that happen,” said Meg Sheehan, a Plymouth native and one of several volunteer attorneys representing the case.

Pilgrim spokeswoman Joyce McMahon said the company doesn’t comment on pending court cases.

Pilgrim has operated in Plymouth for 41 years. Last summer, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) renewed the facility’s license, although the plant has since come under NRC scrutiny following four shuts-downs due to mechanical glitches. The plant was originally built to store nearly 900 spent fuel rods in cooling pools within the facility. Any excess spent rods were to be shipped to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. But federal funding for that project ended in 2010, and as a result the NRC has allowed higher storage capacity at existing nuclear power plants nationwide. Pilgrim is now permitted to store up to 3,800 rods in its cooling pools, which currently hold more than 3,200. By 2015, the pools will be full.

“They absolutely have to build this,” said Vale, referring to the dry-cask system, which would house spent fuel rods in reinforced steel cylinders alongside the existing facility. “When they do, they have no plans to thin out the overcrowded pool. They will only move as much as they need to continue operating.”

McMahon didn’t deny this claim. “Going forward, our plan is to load three (dry) casks every 24 months to maintain enough space in the spent-fuel pool to accommodate a full core offload if ever required.”

That plan doesn’t sit well with Vale or other concerned neighbors. They would prefer that all fuel rods sitting in pools for more than five years — the minimum amount for them to properly cool — be moved immediately to dry-cask storage. This would lessen the blow, they say, of any potential terrorist attack on the main processing site.

For that same reason, they also want an earthen berm built as a barrier between the dry casks and Cape Cod Bay. “There are crazy people out there that do crazy things,” Vale said. “We need to make it more difficult to hit their target.”

She and others would also like regular, transparent monitoring of temperature and radiation emissions from the site.

Pilgrim claims its dry casks have undergone a number of NRC-required tests to assure safety and can withstand a transport crash, terrorist truck bomb or tunnel fire. McMahon said the U.S. Atomic and Safety Licensing Board decided that the likelihood of an aircraft, such as an F-16 or 767, crashing into the system “was not credible.”

“The casks will be located within the protected zone, monitored daily and subject to continuous security surveillance,” McMahon said.

Vale and others doubt how secure that location may be, considering it’s only 100 feet from the coastal zone and about 25 feet above mean sea level. They say more intense storm surges and rising sea levels could place the casks in a future flood zone.

These and other concerns are what Cape Cod Bay Watch, the Pilgrim Coalition and other groups hope will be addressed through a special permit process, during which Entergy would have to discuss its construction plans and town officials would take public comment. If necessary, the Zoning Board could impose conditions on the project and require an environmental impact statement (EIS), which wasn’t done before construction for the dry casks began.

McMahon said such a review wasn’t necessary. “According to federal regulations for dry-cask storage sites, no EIS is required if it is co-located with a nuclear power plant,” she said. “The NRC will inspect the pouring of the (concrete) pad and the subcontractor has and will be following all state and local guidelines for the construction process, including a stormwater pollution control plan.”

Meanwhile, Entergy continues to prepare the Pilgrim plant for dry casks and residents await their day in court. But Vale, Sheehan and others aren’t idly standing by. They want selectmen to pass ordinances that would impose fees on Entergy for spent-fuel storage in cooling pools, require careful monitoring of storage systems, forbid the company from accepting spent fuel from other nuclear generators, and launch a study on rising sea levels and the siting of nuclear plants along the coastal zone.

Concerned Neighbors of Pilgrim has created business and resident petitions requesting that the Board of Selectmen ensure the facility is built, sited and operated in the safest way possible. They hope to gather 4,000 signatures, or the same number of people who voted in the last town election.

“I just want people to know that there are things that we can do,” said Heather Lightner, the interest group’s president. “It might not work, but I just feel like a lot of people in the town want to have a say and feel there’s no way that they can effect any kind of a change. I don’t think that’s true.”