Globe Editorial

At Pilgrim, NRC must address fuel rods, cables, safety plan

March 27, 2011

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THE CRISIS at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station has kindled a badly needed reappraisal of nuclear energy safety in the United States — including at three nuclear plants that power the Boston area. For now, it appears that the worst-case scenario in Japan has been averted. But that shouldn’t stop the rethinking, which should result in more stringent standards and rigorous enforcement to ensure that plants in the United States are the world’s safest.

In Massachusetts, that reappraisal can start with Pilgrim nuclear station in Plymouth, which has applied to extend its license for another 20 years. The 38-year-old plant has a design similar to the reactors at Fukushima — but that’s largely beside the point. Every nuclear plant poses its own set of risks. Regulators should ensure that the operators have done everything possible to understand and minimize those risks.

One of the most worrisome problems facing Pilgrim is the wet storage of nuclear waste, which is packed into a swimming-pool sized container at the site. Like many nuclear facilities, Pilgrim holds more waste than was originally intended, largely because the federal government has failed to build a long-term storage facility. If plants will be responsible for storing their own waste for the forseeable future, regulators should place stricter limits on wet storage. In Japan, a wet storage pool apparently malfunctioned, leading to the release of radioactive material. Before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renews Pilgrim’s license, it should insist that waste go into dry storage, which is safer.

The NRC should also revisit other concerns about the aging cables at Pilgrim and the plant’s security. The crisis in Japan was caused, in part, when the plant lost power needed to keep the core cool and backup systems failed. Pilgrim’s safety systems are powered by submerged cables of a type that have been known to fail under damp conditions. Last year, the NRC declined to mandate more frequent inspections of the cables, a decision it should reverse.

In light of modern concerns about terrorism, which were not on the radar screen when Pilgrim opened in 1972, plants also need adequate protection from attack. Last year, the NRC disclosed that there had been an unspecified security breach at Pilgrim, but withheld details. Representative Edward Markey, a critic of nuclear power, has rightly called for a full accounting of the incident so the public can judge whether the plant is adequately secure.

Finally, the plant’s owner, Entergy, should abandon a short-sighted plan to cut emergency preparedness funding in communities surrounding Pilgrim. Troy Clarkson, the town manager of Bridgewater, said that if the company goes ahead with plans to shrink the $114,000 in annual payments the town receives from Entergy, it will curtail training and close an emergency operations center. In the event of a crisis at Pilgrim, Bridgewater is one of three communities that would be designated reception centers for evacuees. In addition to keeping up funding levels, the company should ensure those emergency scenarios are sufficient; relying on three communities to handle 100,000 South Shore residents seems unrealistic.

The NRC has never denied an application to extend a plant’s license. But after the crisis in Japan, the agency must make clear that nothing but the most rigorous standards will be acceptable.