Derrick Z. Jackson

Nuclear-powered discomfort

(Lesley Becker/Globe Staff Illustration)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / March 29, 2011

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NEW ENGLAND’S little corner of the nuclear world makes you want to duck and cover.

First, Entergy Corp. wants to cut disaster training funds for towns that would take in evacuees if a disaster hit its Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth. As Bridgewater Fire Chief George Rogers told the Globe, “They use our schools as shelter, rely on our police and fire personnel, run the reception center at our college, and they want to cut funds for training volunteers?’’

Second, in a direct insult to democracy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week issued a 20-year license extension to Vermont Yankee (also owned by Entergy) even though the state Senate voted last year to close the plant in 2012. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he originally supported the plant, saying it was “a big employer and the owners invested in maintenance of the plant and told the truth.’’ But he said today, after nearly four decades of operation, “we kind of feel we have an aging, leaking nuclear power plant run by a company we can’t trust, and it’s prudent to shut it.’’

Third, in proof that radiation is not local, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced Sunday that a Boston rain sample contained low levels of radioactive iodine, likely linked to the reactor catastrophe in Japan that followed an earthquake and tsunami. While the level was itself not of concern for human health, state public health Commissioner John Auerbach said, “Certainly, if there is additional significant radiation release in Japan, that would have an impact on the larger environment. That would be something that would be closely monitored by the US officials who are paying very close attention to that in Japan. So we will know that ahead of time if it occurs.’’

Really? There is no sign officials are paying any attention at all. President Obama is sticking to his bipartisan script that nuclear energy — regardless of its unsolved radioactive waste — is part of a clean energy future. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently said, “The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly.’’

There can be no confidence when Entergy wants to slash preparedness funds or when you read the NRC’s transcript of last week’s staff briefing on the Japan disaster. As for the nuclear reactors in the United States, Bill Borchardt, the NRC’s director of operations, insisted: “We have a high degree of confidence that the 104 currently operating reactors, there’s an adequate basis to assure adequate protection.’’ Asked in the briefing why the United States did not shut down plants as Germany did, Borchardt responded, “I’m not aware of the basis for the German decision to do that. I’m 100 percent confident in the review that we’ve done.’’

A week after that briefing, radiation levels remain so high in a flooded area at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that cleanup workers can only be there for 15 minutes. Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Japan was “still far from the end of the accident’’ and called for a high-level nuclear-safety conference in Vienna this spring. Meanwhile, Obama is assisting earthquake-prone Chile to, as Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said, ensure that the operation of two experimental nuclear power plants is “fully, fully safe.’’

Judging by Entergy’s cutting corners at Pilgrim and the NRC’s end-around at Vermont Yankee, the only thing to understand is that nuclear power remains far from safe.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at