On rare stage, nuclear sides face off

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2008

At a rare public hearing on the Plymouth nuclear plant's license renewal application, some came last week to praise the plant for providing needed energy without greenhouse gases, while others said nuclear regulators have not done enough to protect public safety.

The comments were delivered Wednesday to a panel of three administrative judges - an attorney, a nuclear power expert, and an environmental engineer - who must advise the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on whether new monitoring wells are needed to protect against radioactive leaks into nearby Duxbury Bay. The ruling by the panel, which is independent of the NRC, is expected to determine whether Pilgrim wins a 20-year license extension as early as this summer.

Wednesday's comment session was designed to give the public a voice before the technical phase of the hearing the next day. Judge Paul Abramson, the nuclear scientist on the panel, urged Wednesday's speakers to limit comments to the monitoring well question. But most of the 16 instead took advantage of the high-profile session - only the second such evidentiary hearing in a license renewal review - to speak their mind on far-ranging nuclear issues.

Representatives from business, labor, and the Chamber of Commerce emphasized the role played by Pilgrim in the region's economy.

Lauren Mauriello of the 85-member Massachusetts Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance said that Pilgrim "helps make Massachusetts a cleaner, safer place to live" by reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

Bob Rio of the 7,000-member Associated Industries of Massachusetts said Pilgrim lowers electric rates in a state where they are the highest in the country. Given the region's reliance on costly natural gas for power generation, Rio said, "we need to keep every plant going that is not natural gas."

Tim Sullivan of Massachusetts AFL-CIO said Pilgrim is responsible for 700 regional jobs and tax revenues that help pay for Plymouth teachers, police, and firefighters. Eric Dykeman of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce said Pilgrim generates more than $135 million in regional economic activity annually.

But nuclear power got lower grades from critics.

The NRC fails to consider emergency planning in its relicensing reviews, fails to require the real-time, air-flow monitoring information needed to guide emergency evacuations, and fails to make nuclear plants invulnerable to terrorist attack, said Jeff Berger, chairman of Plymouth's municipal Nuclear Matters Committee. "There may as well be a huge illuminated red target painted on top of Pilgrim station," Berger said.

Kingston resident Pine DuBois said jobs and electric power should not be regulators' primary concerns. "We are concerned about the bay," she said. If contaminated water "leaks toward the bay, it will affect our fishery. . . . We have to see that this power is safe." Rebecca Chin of Duxbury previewed Pilgrim Watch's contention by arguing that older plants are "more likely to experience corrosion and leakage problems."

At the session the following morning, testimony took on a far more technical turn, as the judges examined whether Pilgrim's owner, Entergy Corp., must install monitor wells to make sure its buried pipes and tanks can meet their safety requirements.

That contention has been advanced by Pilgrim Watch, a regional nuclear watchdog group, and disputed by Entergy and the NRC staff members who have been evaluating Pilgrim as part of the relicensing review.

The oral hearing Thursday at the Radisson Hotel in Plymouth was convened after a series of legal motions and responses by Pilgrim Watch, Entergy, and the NRC stemming from the company's application to keep operating until 2032. The original license will expire in 2012.

Pilgrim Watch initially challenged Pilgrim's safety proposals on a wide range of issues, including security, and the financial and environmental costs of potential nuclear accidents.

Some issues, such as those cited by Berger, were ruled off the table by NRC regulations. Emergency planning and plant security are not considered part of the licensing review, the NRC decided.

The three-judge panel empowered by the NRC eventually pared down Pilgrim Watch's challenge to a single issue - the plant's plan for monitoring leaks in buried pipes and other components. Pipes have leaked radioactive liquids in similar plants throughout the country.

Abramson, the nuclear scientist on the panel, said the issue was not whether Pilgrim's pipes might develop leaks, but whether those leaks would be big enough to raise safety concerns. Pilgrim Watch expert witness Arnold Gundersen questioned whether an underground pipe system would withstand an earthquake. Pilgrim experts responded by describing how pipes have been strengthened with an epoxy liner.

Judge Ann Marshall Young questioned witnesses about the rate of degradation in corroded pipes. The main question, said Abramson, was whether degradation could lead to a catastrophic failure that would prevent pipes and tanks from operating safely.

While Entergy officials said pipes would be inspected visually every 10 years, Pilgrim Watch argued that more frequent inspections should be part of the management system required for license extension. The citizens group also argued that monitor wells should be installed to see if leaks have occurred already.

If the administrative judges rule for Entergy, Pilgrim's license renewal could be acted upon by the NRC by June or July, almost certainly favorably. The NRC has yet to deny an operating license extension. But if the panel finds for Pilgrim Watch, the timeline becomes less predictable.

Robert Knox can be contacted at

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