On the endangered reactors list: Pilgrim and Columbia?

Massachusetts Governor Patrick Deval told a group of anti-nuclear protestors yesterday that he supports shutdown of the Pilgrim reactor near Cape Cod. He added that he would write a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners asking them to close the reactor but said, “It doesn’t matter what I think.”

Massachusetts' Pilgrim reactor.

Massachusetts’ Pilgrim reactor.

The NRC quickly made clear that indeed, it doesn’t care what Deval, or any other governor, thinks. “We would only act to shut down the plant if we identified significant and pervasive problems that could call into question the facility’s safety,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said in an email. “We have not seen issues of that magnitude at Pilgrim.”

In other words, the NRC says only it has the authority to close reactors, and it doesn’t have to listen to officials elected by the public.

But history shows it is not exactly true that only the NRC can close a reactor. In fact, the NRC has never ordered a nuclear reactor permanently closed, and is unlikely to ever do so. Yet several reactors have closed early–four of them just last year, with a fifth, Vermont Yankee, scheduled to close this year. And a dozen or so other reactors also have closed early; in the case of the Shoreham reactor on Long Island, before it even went into commercial operation. Then-Governor Mario Cuomo, faced with enormous public pressure from Long Island, pledged that he would close Shoreham. And he set up a mechanism to do so. At Vermont Yankee, opposition to the reactor from Governor Peter Shumlin and most of the state’s elected officials was a key factor in Entergy’s decision to close the reactor early–the atmosphere in the state had become too difficult for Entergy, especially faced with low-cost competition from other energy sources.

Entergy also owns Pilgrim, which received a 20-year license extension in 2012. But Vermont Yankee had received a 20-year license extension in 2011. A license extension is a piece of paper; not an assurance of operation. Also like Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim is a Fukushima-clone GE Mark I reactor, with a deficient reactor design that should never have been approved in the first place (and would certainly not be approved for new construction in the U.S. today).

State Senator Dan Wolf, another opponent of Pilgrim, pointed out that the state has authority over the emergency management system and use of water from the bay to cool the reactor. Wolf said a good case can be made that the reactor should be forced to use a closed-cycle cooling system–i.e. one with cooling towers. Building cooling towers would probably be cost-prohibitive for Pilgrim, and the federal EPA is attempting–in theory anyway–to end the use of once-through cooling systems, which cause havoc to marine life, like Pilgrim’s at both nuclear and coal plants. The same issue has arisen at New York’s Indian Point reactors, where Governor Andrew Cuomo opposes license renewal and wants the reactors closed, and California’s Diablo Canyon reactors, where Governor Jerry Brown’s current position is unclear although he was an outspoken opponent of the construction of Diablo Canyon and spoke at anti-nuclear protests there in the 1970s.

It would seem that Gov. Deval and other officials have some tools to challenge the continued operation of Pilgrim; the question now is whether they will use them. In any case, with protests mounting and official opposition in the public arena, Pilgrim certainly is high on anyone’s endangered reactors list.

Columbia Generating Station. Photo: NRC

Columbia Generating Station. Photo: NRC

On the other side of the country, Washington State’s Columbia Generating Station has rarely received national attention. A General Electric Mark II reactor, a model only slightly different than the Mark I–it’s still vulnerable to hydrogen explosions and containment failure– Columbia has operated below the radar for a couple of decades.

But that started to change late last year, when the Oregon and Washington chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility began investigating the reactor.

Their first finding, released in November, found that earthquake risk factors for the reactor have been greatly underestimated.

That was followed by a bombshell study released by PSR but prepared by a former nuclear industry executive, that found ratepayers could save nearly $2 Billion if the reactor closed now, rather than continued operating.

And then, on Monday, Union of Concerned Scientists released its annual nuclear safety study and found that, for the first time ever, one reactor accounted for three “near-misses” (near-misses are defined by UCS as “when the NRC dispatches an inspection team to investigate an event or condition that increases the chance of reactor core damage by a factor of 10 or more.”) in one year.  That reactor: Columbia Generating Station.

And even the normally pro-nuclear media in central and eastern Washington is taking notice.

While no major elected official in Washington has yet called for shutdown of Columbia, one positive sign is that a bill promoted by pro-nuclear state legislators to conduct a study of the viability of supporting new reactor construction in Washington was shelved earlier this week.

It may be early yet, but perhaps Columbia will join the ranks of endangered reactors as well. Certainly its many and growing problems merit stronger scrutiny by elected officials and the public alike.

Michael Mariotte

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/03/12/on-the-endangered–reactors-list/

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8 thoughts on “On the endangered reactors list: Pilgrim and Columbia?

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Fukushima from Noam Chomsky to Ralph Nader and More | limitless life

  2. andrewblarkin

    Reblogged this on Vernon Radiation Safety and commented:
    This article states that Gov. Devault Patrick of Massachusetts has expressed his opposition to the nuclear power plant run by Entergy in Plymouth Massachusetts. He goes on to say that the NRC does not care what any government officials say. There is an effort to demand cooling towers at Plymouth. ( Actually, the towers heat the environment. ) The cost of putting in cooling towers may be an economic spike in to the heart of the nuclear vampires.

  3. EnergyNorthwest

    Here’s an update, as much has changed since this was posted.

    The Nuclear Energy Task Force legislation was “unshelved,” by the Governor no less, and the task force had a series of very productive meetings and ultimately voted to continue meeting in 2015.

    Of seismic and economic studies:

    The NRC rejected the PSR data three times. Why? We are taking part in a professional, comprehensive seismic study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that will inform us and the NRC as to changes we need to make, if any, to our already robust seismic safety.

    The region’s Public Power Council, which represents consumer-owned utilities throughout the Pacific Northwest, observed in 2014 that the variable cost of Columbia operations in recent years were slightly above spot market energy prices. However, the council noted that a single unanticipated shift in the markets “can easily wipe out years of anticipated benefits” gained from replacement power, and pointed to the Western Energy Crisis of 2000-2001 to prove the point. During that relatively short energy crisis, the cost benefit of Columbia’s power “dwarf[ed] the modest benefits that would have been achieved” through replacement power. “In 2001 alone the operation of Columbia Generating Station compared to the market saved Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers $1.4 billion,” according to the council.

    Here’s what the Tri-City Herald editorial board thought about the most recent of PSRs many anti-nuclear studies:
    “When activists hire a biased researcher to conduct a study, they accomplish nothing. No matter how they tout their findings, their recommendation is suspect. Yet that is the situation presented by Seattle-based Heart of America Northwest and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, which commissioned a report that led to their calling for the shutdown of the only commercial nuclear power plant in the region.”


    We also were happy to debunk the phony “near-miss” story by UCS. Read about it here:


    ICYMI: 2014 was a record year for Columbia in terms of generation – 9.5 million megawatt-hours of generation and a 98.6 percent capacity factor. We will continue to provide that kind of value to Northwest ratepayers whether anyone is paying attention or not.

    Thank you.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      We asked Chuck Johnson of Oregon/Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility to respond to this comment from Energy Northwest. Here is his response:

      This message from Energy Northwest about the safety and economic viability of its Columbia Generating Station nuclear power reactor – a GE Mark II reactor of a design that the NRC agrees could experience a hydrogen explosion similar to those that were crippled by melt-downs in Fukushima, Japan – contains enough spin to make even a seasoned nuclear power critic like myself reach for the Dramamine tablets.

      Let’s examine the points the nuclear power utility makes in order:
      1) Nuclear Power Task Force legislation was, indeed, unshelved and passed on the last day of the Washington State Legislative Session in 2014. It was not done at the Governor Inslee’s request, but was instead a requirement from the Republican-controlled Senate to the negotiators of the Democratic-controlled House for the final budget bill. One public hearing was held in the nuclear power company town of Pasco, WA – next to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The legislative task force concluded that it was premature to conclude that new nuclear power construction was a viable alternative for energy development in the state, but that they would favor continued study. This was not a win for the nuclear power industry by any means, as there remains a lot of skepticism by members of the committee from both political parties about nuclear power’s cost and waste issues. It is unlikely that those can be answered in 2015 either, even with continued discussion and meetings.

      2) Seismic data from the US Geological Survey that a licensed engineering geologist, Terry L. Tolan, analyzed for us indicates that there is potential for a beyond design basis earthquake with ground motion of .6 g, more than twice the .25 g that the Columbia Generating Station was designed to withstand. That the NRC has chosen to ignore this information and wait for Energy Northwest’s required seismic study – due in March 2015 – should not be surprising to anyone. The NRC has made it a bad habit to ignore new seismic data when it comes to the aging nuclear power plants it ostensibly regulates. We shall see what the NRC does when the new Energy Northwest report comes out and Physicians for Social Responsibility intends to carefully review their report and the NRC’s response to it. Given their decades of denial of seismic hazard at the Diablo Canyon reactors on the California coast, we are concerned they will continue to turn a blind eye to this danger.
      Here is a copy of our press statement, letter to NRC chair Allison Macfarlane, and Terry Tolan’s study from November 2013 – http://www.psr.org/chapters/oregon/news/homepage-features/columbia-generating-station.html

      3) An exhaustive study on the economics of the Columbia Generating Station by well-respected utility economist Robert McCullough, using utility-modeling software and forecasting from the US Energy Information Administration, found that if Bonneville Power Administration had closed the Columbia Generating Station and purchased electricity contracts on the market over the last five years, it would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars for Northwest ratepayers. In 2013, that saving would have $200 million – not an insignificant number, but one that would have saved the average customer about $50. The forecast is that this difference between the market and the cost of the running the CGS nuclear power plant will continue and that savings of $1.7 billion dollars over the projected life of the plant (assuming another 17 years of operation) would accrue to ratepayers if they closed it down.
      In response, Energy Northwest paid Cambridge Energy Research Associates very well to issue its own very poorly-designed study which now seems to have been so preposterous that they no longer cite it. Instead they quote a 6-page memo from the Public Power Council that cites the Western Energy Crisis of 2000-2001 as an example of the market running amok and “dwarfing the modest benefits that would have been achieved” through replacement power. True, if regulators allowed a future Enron to manipulate the markets as they did during the California Energy Crisis, the price of power on the market could skyrocket – but not if you put contracts in place of five or ten year duration. Because we have a low price for replacement power currently, thanks to wind resources and low natural gas prices, now is an excellent time to move forward with purchasing it.
      Here is a link to McCullough’s study and related materials – http://www.psr.org/chapters/oregon/news/new-report-ratepayers-could.html

      4) News flash – the Tri-City Herald editorial board likes nuclear power and thinks our critiques are baseless, simply because our most recent one was put forward by a “biased researcher” (in this case, nuclear waste expert Bob Alvarez) on behalf of anti-nuclear organizations (Heart of America Northwest and PSR). Publishing in the heart of the nuclear industry with tens of thousands of jobs at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Columbia nuclear power plant, and related industries, the Tri-City Herald reflects the gung ho attitude toward all things nuclear of their local industry. It would be refreshing if the Tri-City Herald chose to examine our reports in detail rather than cast them aside based upon their own prejudices against the groups that have sponsored them.

      Alvarez’ information is taken from NRC sources and is not particularly controversial, unless you are in denial that nuclear power and waste storage is a danger to the communities in which it is generated and stored. Here is a link to it: http://www.psr.org/chapters/oregon/assets/pdfs/the-hazards-of-high-level.pdf

      5) The “near miss” story from UCS is that three insufficiencies discovered by the NRC resulted in special inspections and reports. Two of those inspections were over security failures at the plant, and reports were not published on the details of those failures for obvious reasons. These three “near misses” were the largest number recorded by any single nuclear facility since UCS has been publishing its annual reports. The fact that Energy Northwest chooses to downplay the significance of this is further evidence that they do not take safety matters seriously enough. This type of complacency in the Japanese nuclear power industry and its feeling of invulnerability directly led to the multiple accidents at Fukushima – something that was not supposed to happen…but did.
      Here is the executive summary of nuclear engineer Dave Lochbaum’s report for the Union of Concerned Scientists last year, with a listing of the problems found at Columbia – http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/NRC-Nuclear-Safety-Report-2013-summary.pdf

      6) It appears that congratulations are in order to Energy Northwest for operating the Columbia nuclear power plant at nearly full capacity this past year. The fact that they consider this to be news, and that they seem to have set production records, makes one wonder about the expectations they hold themselves to. Isn’t this what nuclear power plants are designed to do in years in which they are not shut down for refueling?

      Meanwhile, no progress has been made in installing the required vents on their inadequately small reactor containment to prevent a Fukushima-style hydrogen explosion in a loss of coolant accident. The NRC has now given Columbia until 2017 (six years after Fukushima) to complete this work. There is also no report of when Energy Northwest plans to replace its steam turbines, at a cost of $150 million, though they privately acknowledge this will need to be done in the near future.
      7) Physicians for Social Responsibility, Heart of America Northwest, Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, Northwest Environmental Advocates, Fellowship of Reconciliation, No Nukes Northwest, the Alliance for Democracy, and other allies and groups in our coalition will continue to pay attention to the activities of Energy Northwest and the operation of their nuclear power plant along our Columbia River – the last of the nuclear power reactors in the Pacific Northwest. We hope to announce its closure at the earliest possible date.


      Chuck Johnson
      Director, Joint Task Force on Nuclear Power
      Oregon and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility

      1. EnergyNorthwest

        Hmm, didn’t see much new/updated in the PSR response – just a restatement of what you had in the post and a glossing over of the deficiencies in the original post that were pointed out subsequently. But again, thank you.

  4. David Hill

    Energy Northwest, what is the cost of storing rad waste for 10,000 years? What are the moral implications for our generations creating this waste, that hundreds more generations will have to safeguard? What would a melt down at Columbia Gen Station /Hanford do to our region’s economic and physical health? Hard questions to answer, no?

    Thank you, Chuck Johnson, for elucidating many important points in a very level-headed way.


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