Entergy Watch: Pilgrim Coalition urges NRC to require Mark I atomic reactor to shutdown during historic winter storm
As reported by Wicked Local Plymouth, in the lead up to what is being reported as an historic winter storm about to hit the Northeast, Pilgrim Coalition and Cape Cod Bay Watch are calling on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to order Entergy's Pilgrim atomic reactor shutdown, "arguing that a prolonged power outage, flooding, high winds, and snow and ice could cause several serious problems at Pilgrim."
However, as of 2:30 PM, NRC's "Current Power Reactor Status" report shows that Pilgrim is operating at 83% power. All other reactors in the Northeast are also operating, either at, or very close to, 100% power levels.
In a press release, Pilgrim Coalition spokespeople stated:
“This is predicted to be a historic storm with severe consequences,” said Pine DuBois, Executive Director of Jones River Watershed Association. “Winds are supposed to pick up Friday night during high tide and continue through the even higher tide Saturday morning. Near hurricane gusts will be out of the east, hitting Pilgrim head-‐on. At other times during high winds, Pilgrim’s water intake pumps have failed.”
“Entergy could not keep the lights on during the Super Bowl -‐ can we be sure they’ll provide enough power to Pilgrim during the storm?” duBois added.
According to Karen Vale, Campaign Manager at Cape Cod Bay Watch, “This historic storm emphasizes that rising sea levels and frequent, more severe storms make Pilgrim’s continued operations increasing risky. We hope that the NRC will close Pilgrim until the threat of the storm passes.”
As Beyond Nuclear's Freeze Our Fukushimas campaign has warned, no matter the cause (earthquake and tsunami, or historic winter storm at high tide), any prolonged loss of power to atomic reactors can lead to meltdown and catastrophic radioactivity releases. Entergy's Pilgrim is an identical twin design to Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 to 4, a General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactor.
A major objection of Pilgrim critics, such as Cape Downwinders, is the fact that Cape Cod cannot be evacuated in the event of a radiological catastrophe at Pilgrim. This would be true on a calm, sunny day, let alone during a natural disaster, such as an historic winter storm.
Reuters has reported that Pilgrim did automatically shutdown after a loss of offsite power last night. AP has reported that Pilgrim lost offsite power at 9:15 PM last night (as did several hundred thousands Massachusetts residents) due to the storm, and has been running cooling and safety systems with emergency back up generators since. AP has also reported that Seabrook, NH, "hometown" to a full-scale atomic reactor, was blanketed with 26 inches of snow. Despite the risk of power outages, NRC's Power Reactor Status Report showed that, as of yesterday (the most recent report available), all reactors in the Northeast were still operating at or near full power.
Even when reactors automatically shutdown, as happened last night at Pilgrim, their hot core still needs to be actively cooled for days, or a meltdown can occur. If primary offsite power is lost, but emergency diesel generators function as designed, cooling to the reactor core can be maintained. But, as revealed by U.S. Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), there is a long history of diesels not working when called upon in the U.S.
On 3/11/11, when the 9.0 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan, the three reactors operating at Fukushima Daiichi automatically shutdown. But the quake had also destroyed primary offsite power, leaving the emergency backup diesel generators as a last line of defense to cool the still-hot reactor cores. An hour later, the 45-foot tall tsunami also destroyed the diesel generators, plunging reactors there onto the inescapable path towards meltdown. (There is strong evidence that the quake alone, prior to the tsunami, had plunged Unit 1 into meltdown mode.)
Thus, shutting reactors down ahead of predicted natural disasters, such as this current blizzard or the recent Hurrican Sandy, would allow the core to cool, decreasing the risks of overheating and meltdown if offsite power is lost and emergency diesels don't work. However, the nuclear power industry and NRC rarely take such a basic safety precaution.
Reuters has reported that on Sunday, off-site electricity was restored to Pilgrim. The blizzard knocked out Pilgrim's three connections to the off-site electrical grid, but emergency diesel generators continued supplying the power needed to run safety and cooling systems on the reactor, the NRC has reported.
However, not mentioned by news media coverage, and little known, is the fact that NRC does not require emergency back up power on the high-level radioactive waste storage pools. Under NRC's lax regulations, pools can rely entirely, and exclusively, on the electrical grid for the running of cooling water circulation pumps. Thus, when the grid goes down, the pool begins to heat up. After enough hours or days without water circulation, the pool can begin to boil. If the evaporation goes on long enough, the pool water can boil away the water cover over the stored irradiated fuel. If the high-level radioactive waste is exposed to air, it can quickly catch fire. As pools are not required to be located within primary radiological containment structures, either (see graphic, above left), this means that catastrophic radioactivity releases into the environment could result from a pool fire, as Alvarez et al. warned in Jan. 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Pilgrim's pool contains all the high-level radioactive waste ever generated there. None has yet been moved to dry cask storage, a very rare exception in the U.S. nuclear power industry. After more than four decades of exclusively pool storage, however, Entergy has applied to NRC for permission to begin moving some fraction of the pool's inventory into dry casks.