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Panelists outline problems with U.S. nuclear plant safety

Oct 10, 2013 - Christine Legere - capecodonline.com

BOSTON — A panel of nuclear experts says it's time to retire the entire fleet of nuclear reactors in the United States because the consequences of an accident far outweigh the benefits of keeping them active.

Gregory Jaczko, formerly on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and chairman during the Fukushima-Dai-ichi accident in Japan; Peter Bradford, an NRC commissioner during the Three Mile Island accident; nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen; and former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan all gave convincing arguments to shutter the plants, periodically alluding to Plymouth's 41-year-old Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station during a panel discussion at the Statehouse Wednesday. State Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, who represents communities on the Cape, joined the panel as a last-minute addition.

"The ultimate takeaway from Fukushima is accidents happen," Gundersen said. "Nuclear power is a technology that had 40 great years to be wiped out in one day."

Gundersen added the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may contend the odds of an accident are one in a million, but there have been five meltdowns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and three reactors at Fukushima.

Panelists condemned the ongoing delay of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require stricter safety measures at the nation's 104 reactors following Fukushima Dai-ichi. A "Lessons Learned" report was compiled by a task force at the direction of the NRC, but the commission has been slow to implement recommendations, panelists said.

Jaczko, who cast the sole vote against relicensing the Pilgrim plant for another 20 years in 2012, resigned from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shortly after the Pilgrim vote in frustration that business continued as usual in the wake of Fukushima.

"There should have been a pause on relicensing and a pause on new licensing until we sorted out what happened," he said.

Contacted later, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the commission is currently working on top priorities from the list, such as a flood and seismic revaluation, improvements for spent fuel pools and hardened vents for certain reactors. "All of the work is continuing," Sheehan said.

Gundersen was particularly critical of the NRC. "When you hear 'Entergy is safe,' that means it meets minimal acceptable criteria set by a compliant regulator," he said. Entergy owns and operates several nuclear power stations including Pilgrim.

"Is Pilgrim any different from Fukushima Dai-ichi? The reactor is identical to Dai-ichi's units 2 and 3," Gundersen said. "In a critical way, it's worse. The Japanese have seven or eight years of spent fuel stored there, we have 35 years of spent fuel sitting in a pool in Pilgrim, and the pool sits on top of a building."

Pilgrim's pool currently contains over 3,000 spent fuel rods.

Jaczko said Fukushima sends a disturbing message. "Accidents will happen," he said. "That doesn't mean Pilgrim will have an accident tomorrow or in my lifetime, but it's a possibility that can't be ruled out."

Evacuation, a topic particularly worrisome to residents on the Cape, was discussed by a couple of panelists. Peter Bradford said off-site emergency planning wasn't regulated until 1980, after Three Mile Island. "Prior to 1980, plants were sited without a thought to the ability to evacuate," Bradford said.

Pilgrim opened in 1973.

Gundersen said Cape residents would be trapped on the Cape or forced to travel closer to Pilgrim and the radiation plume to get off-Cape.

Wolf described a recent tour legislators took at Pilgrim. "Based on what I saw, just on skin level, the place looked like the 1960s and 1970s technology right down to analog warning lights," Wolf said. "I got off the elevator onto flypaper. When I asked what it was for, they said to take radioactive material off your feet."

Wolf called recent mechanical glitches at Pilgrim, involving water pumps, valves, electrical wiring and lines with leaks, "warning signs" that the plant is falling into disrepair. "Aging systems fail. Period," he said.

Wolf said it was time to phase out Pilgrim.

Panelists said it was time to phase out all U.S. reactors. "I don't personally believe we can immediately shut down all plants, but there needs to be a phase out and replacement with other energy sources," Jaczko said.

Setting the stage for the discussion was a presentation by Naoto Kan, who said through his interpreter, "A chill ran down my spine," at the news the reactors were melting down.

While Japan had an evacuation plan, some of those implementing it were evacuated themselves. Phone lines were down and power lines out. "We had not anticipated an accident so severe it would require a 5-kilometer evacuation," he said. The evacuation circle continued to broaden as days passed.

Iodine pills supplied to the towns in case of a nuclear accident were not distributed in many communities. Data regarding the direction of the contamination plume didn't get out. "It was not clear who was in charge," Kan said.

Following the panel discussion, Entergy issued this statement:

"Pilgrim Station is a safe plant that gets excellent safety ratings from the NRC, including while under the former chairman. The plant is regularly examined to identify enhancements to make it even safer, including using lessons learned from Fukushima, and many have either been completed or are underway."

Entergy also supplied a statement on the panel discussion from former NRC Chairman Dale Klein, in which he said, "Comparing the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi to a hypothetical accident at Indian Point or Pilgrim is intellectually dishonest and resembles the classic fear mongering intended to create unnecessary anxiety."