Pilgrim foes get disaster impact review

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2010

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Reversing a lower board’s ruling, the nation’s top nuclear regulators have agreed to hold a hearing on what steps Pilgrim nuclear power plant’s owners should take to limit the potential impact of a severe accident.

The new ruling adds a stage to an already lengthy review of Entergy’s request to extend the Plymouth plant’s license an additional 20 years, to 2032. The license review has stretched over four years, twice the average length — an indication of how doggedly the renewal has been contested by local critics.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the five-member body that directs the nation’s nuclear regulators, ruled recently that the federal three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Board created to review the renewal request was wrong to dismiss an objection by watchdog group Pilgrim Watch to Pilgrim’s analysis of the environmental and economic impact of a nuclear disaster.

The Duxbury-based group raised the issue years ago, saying the formulas Entergy and NRC regulators use to calculate the effects of a large-scale radiation release from an accident or terrorist attack were flawed and seriously underestimated the scope of the potential damage.

Entergy’s environmental report “is inadequate because it ignores the true off-site radiological and economic consequences of a severe accident at Pilgrim in its Severe Accident Mitigation Alternatives (SAMA) analysis,’’ Pilgrim Watch wrote in its argument for a hearing on the severe-accident issue.

The group cited a nuclear expert’s analysis that “realistically concluded’’ a severe accident in a populated area would cause hundreds of billions of dollars damage and permanent displacement of upward of a million people.

Pilgrim Watch said analysis of the impact from a disaster at Pilgrim should include costs to replace or remediate basic infrastructure such as drinking water supply, communication, transportation and distribution networks, financial institutions, energy systems, factories, farms, schools, hospitals, and public buildings — plus long-term damage to industries such as tourism. Pilgrim Watch also challenged regulators’ views on where and how far air currents would carry dangerous releases of radiation after a major accident.

With the backing of NRC staff, Entergy’s experts relied on a “straight-line’’ model of radiation plumes to predict consequences.

Other experts, however, said air currents on the Plymouth coast did not move in straight lines and more accurate computer models of how coastal air currents move were available for Entergy and regulators to use.

Based on this analysis, Pilgrim Watch said the NRC should require Pilgrim to construct a more elaborate — and more expensive — system of air flow monitoring towers.

But Entergy’s lawyers argued that regulatory law backed their models for estimating damage and won a summary judgment from the licensing board’s 2-to-1 majority — throwing out Pilgrim Watch’s arguments without a hearing on substance and expert testimony behind them. The NRC, however, cited the dissent of board member Ann Young, who argued Pilgrim Watch’s challenge to the straight-line “plume model’’ should not be dismissed, in ruling in favor of an appeal. The ruling sent the issue back to the licensing board for a hearing.

Entergy stands by the straight-line plume and expects to prevail, said Pilgrim spokesman David Tarantino.

“The model that Pilgrim used has been used in all of the plants that have been relicensed. In all of the new plants being designed, they’re still using it,’’ Tarantino said. “The [board] summarily dismissed the contention. What the NRC is saying is maybe they should have held a hearing on it.’’

But the delay caused by another hearing may be a problem for the plant’s owners, he said.

While Pilgrim would be entitled to operate even after its license runs out in 2012, because it filed for renewal in a timely manner, too lengthy a delay in winning renewal may harm the company in “negotiating long-term contracts and sales of power. It becomes more problematic as times goes on,’’ Tarantino said.

Pilgrim’s licensing renewal review is one of the longest the NRC has undertaken, Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said. “In general, we expect license renewal applications that don’t involve a hearing to take about 22 months and those that do involve a hearing to take about 30 months,’’ Sheehan said.

But while the review has crawled, Pilgrim Watch president Mary Lampert said the NRC is trying to hurry the hearing on the severe-accident issue. “They took about 18 months to issue a ruling — not my fault,’’ she said by e-mail. “Because of their delay, we should not be short-changed on times to prepare.’’

Pilgrim Watch needs time to line up its witnesses for a hearing, she said. And the group has already challenged aspects of the new NRC ruling she argues unfairly narrow analysis of severe accident impact, ruling out important points. The NRC’s ruling on that, she said, will guide her preparations for the hearing.

Sheehan said the NRC has planned a May 4 conference call to set a date for the hearing.

Robert Knox can be reached at

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