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.”
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.
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.
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.
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