Japan residents’ woes felt sorely in sister city

Pilgrim has the same design as the Fukushima nuclear plant. Pilgrim has the same design as the Fukushima nuclear plant. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / March 24, 2011

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Plymouth residents have been listening hard for news from Japan because of the friendships many have made with people living in one of Japan’s devastated coastal communities — and also because the nuclear reactors under siege on that disaster-racked coast are the same type as those in the 40-year-old plant in their own community.

“I know so many families,’’ said Margie Burgess, who has traveled to Plymouth’s sister city, Shichigahama, eight times through the Sister City program she helped to organize and promote. “It’s very painful.’’

Connected by multiple exchange visits for more than 20 years with Plymouth, Shichigahama is located on Japan’s northern shore near the epicenter of the March 11 earthquake and was inundated by the resulting tsunami. A town of 20,000 people, it is, like Plymouth, a coastal community with a strong tourism industry.

When they realized how close news reports placed the earthquake to Shichigahama and how devastating the resulting wall of water was to low-lying coastal towns, residents here were worried they had lost their Sister City friends.

“It’s so heart-wrenching,’’ said Karen Buechs, who met a delegation from Shichigahama and felt a “natural, genuine’’ connection with the visitors, she said.

At last count, Burgess said, 350 students and adults have participated in the exchange program. “The main thing is to know each other and understand each other personally. And it works.’’

Burgess said she has stayed with Japanese families who did not speak English without an interpreter, communicating with signs and gestures, watching a grandmother model her kimono for her and seeing demonstrations by traditional dancers. On her first visit, she was placed with three different families. “I’m richer for it,’’ she said.

“We had this connection,’’ said first-term Selectman Mathew Muratore, who traveled to Shichigahama last fall to take part in a 20th-anniversary celebration of the friendship pact. “Once we knew where it hit, we knew they were in pretty tough shape. When you feel helpless, you want to do something.’’

The hotel where he stayed on his visit was underwater after the tsunami. When the water drained off, it became a refuge for hundreds of refugees from the water’s destruction.

Thank goodness for the Internet, said Plymouth residents seeking news of their friends. A Facebook group page (Updates on Plymouth’s Sister City Shichigahama) made it easy to share news of contacts with Shichigahama friends and relieve worries.

“I have stayed in touch with my host family for seven years,’’ said Ronnie Lazarus, who chaperoned Plymouth students on a visit there. Worried about the disaster, she was happy to hear from a host family member who managed to reach her by phone.

Although loss of life was less severe than feared, Shichigahama residents have lost homes and businesses, seen much of their town destroyed, and are still living without power and other services.

To deal with the helplessness and provide some concrete assistance, Plymouth last week announced a campaign to raise $500,000 to aid rebuilding efforts in Shichigahama. As of last weekend, the drive had raised $25,000 and was to have held a telethon Tuesday on local cable TV. Donations will continue to be accepted through the website.

Beyond its Sister City bond, Plymouth is connected to the natural disaster in Japan by its own close-to-home worries about nuclear power. The tsunami’s assault on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex has reawakened debate among residents over the presence of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant on their own coast.

“I think they know now that Pilgrim is the same kind of reactor as in Fukushima,’’ said Jeff Berger, chairman of the town’s Nuclear Matters Committee. Berger also pointed to a widely circulated news report ranking Pilgrim as having the second-highest risk of core damage from an earthquake among American plants. “That’s unnerved a lot of people.’’

But Berger, who said that report may overstate the earthquake risk, has a more basic concern about the town’s ability to deal with a nuclear accident. “The land is not flat, the winds are not consistent,’’ and Pilgrim has no accurate model of how radiation would spread, he said. As a result, emergency officials have no reliable idea of where a radiation plume is going, Berger said.

“People are talking about it quite a bit,’’ agreed Lazarus. “People in The Pinehills [housing development] are saying, ‘My children don’t want me to live here.’ ’’ For herself, however, Lazarus said the Japanese disaster has not caused her to worry more about Pilgrim’s safety.

Pointing to a readers’ poll in a local newspaper in which respondents voted against extending Pilgrim’s license, veteran Town Meeting member Bill Abbott said the problems in Japan may have an impact here. Pilgrim’s owner, Entergy, applied for renewal more than five years ago, but a licensing panel has been reviewing issues about the plant’s age and possible safety risks ever since. Turning down that renewal may represent “low-hanging fruit’’ if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chooses to demonstrate concern over America’s aging reactors in light of events in Japan, Abbott said.

Long a vocal critic of the design of the Pilgrim plant — the same design as that of the Fukushima plants — Wedge Bramhall said the dramatic breakdowns in the Japanese plant have caused “a lot of people all of a sudden to say, ‘You were right.’ ’’ He said the United States should follow Germany’s lead and shut down all its General Electric Mark I reactors for a year “to look at it, think about it, and re-evaluate it.’’

Linda Benezra said her worries center on the safety of the spent fuel rods stored on the site. In Japan, workers have been struggling to pour cold water on the used fuel rods to prevent serious radioactive releases, after the plants’ cooling system was knocked out by the tsunami. “The incident in Japan highlights those concerns for all of us,’’ Benezra said.

Concern over the potential vulnerability of the spent fuel stored inside Pilgrim and the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant prompted state Attorney General Martha Coakley earlier this week to urge the NRC to reconsider its regulations for storing used nuclear fuel.

In a prepared statement Sunday, Coakley said the state had urged the NRC to require the study of “alternative storage at these plants,’’ such as storing waste in dry casks outside of the plant, as a relicensing requirement, but has been turned down. In light of the events in Japan, the NRC should reevaluate the risks of storing used fuel in water, she said.

Some Plymouth residents, however, say their faith in Pilgrim’s safety has not weakened.

“I live right here in Manomet near the nuclear power plant,’’ Buechs said. “I am not shaken by it. I have great confidence in how [Pilgrim’s workers] would go about to avert a disaster. We can learn from what happened in Japan.’’

NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko also said last week that his agency will look at what lessons can be learned from the crisis in Japan. Jaczko defended the NRC’s safety studies and said its analysis of US plants following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made US plants safer.

Plymouth residents have a lot at stake in how the NRC responds, Abbott said.

“If there’s any silver lining, it gives us a chance to see what risk we are under.’’

Robert Knox can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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