FEMA and some states dispute the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff's premise that "all hazards planning" would be enough to address a nuclear accident. Planning experts recommend the planning zone remain in place.
(TNS) — Despite opposition from the region's legislators and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has voted to allow the owners of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to shrink the plant's emergency planning zone from the current 10-mile radius down to its own property line.
Pilgrim's reactor ceased operation May 31. The NRC will allow elimination of the zone, which encompasses sections of Plymouth, Kingston, Carver, Marshfield and Duxbury, come April.
And with that elimination will come the loss of about $2 million in annual funding for those towns, to be put toward safety training, staffing, equipment and expenses.
"The exemption saves Holtec money at the cost of public safety," Mary Lampert, president of Pilgrim Watch, said. "NRC rationalizes its decision to grant the exemption on a false assumption. They incorrectly claim that the risk of a rapidly occurring offsite radiological release is significantly lower at a nuclear power reactor that has permanently ceased operations and removed fuel from the reactor vessel. Wrong. There is far more radiation in the spent fuel pool than in the reactor core when Pilgrim is operating."
Explaining the three votes in favor of the exemption, Commissioner Annie Caputo wrote in a statement that she and her colleagues were satisfied that spent fuel pools were robust and storage of radioactive spent fuel in them was safe.
"Staff reviewed recent, similar exemptions granted for other decommissioned nuclear power reactors, including assessment of spent fuel pool studies, hostile action-based events and post-Fukushima mitigation strategies, including seismic safety. NRC regulatory activities and studies have reaffirmed the safety and security of spent fuel stored in pools and shown that SFPs are effectively designed to prevent accidents and minimize damage from malevolent attacks as well as from natural disasters," Caputo wrote.
Caputo also noted that the risk of a radioactive release lessens when a reactor shuts down permanently.
A single NRC member voted against the exemption, citing a number of issues of concern, including increased possibility of an earthquake in the region.
The earthquake risks at the Pilgrim site are greater than previously understood, Commissioner Jeff Baran wrote in a statement explaining his vote.
In May 2014, as part of the post-Fukushima seismic hazard reevaluation, the NRC published updated ground motion response spectra for Pilgrim, Baran said.
"The results revealed the potential for an earthquake at Pilgrim significantly stronger than the safe shutdown earthquake the plant was designed to handle," Baran wrote. "In fact, the gap between the previously understood seismic risk and the updated seismic risk was larger at Pilgrim than at any other nuclear power plant in the country."
Baran said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with several states including Massachusetts, have disputed the NRC staff's premise that so-called "all hazards planning" would be sufficient to address a spent nuclear fuel accident.
"FEMA notes that it is 'unrealistic' to 'scale up non-existent plans' and that the resulting 'lack of necessary equipment and shortage of trained emergency personnel could have unfortunate consequences,'" Baran wrote, citing an August letter to the NRC from Michael Casey, director of FEMA's technical hazards division.
When the emergency planning zone around nuclear plants was established in 1978 by a task force made up of nuclear regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency, that panel understood that even though accidents resulting in significant releases of radioactive material are less likely once a reactor is shut down, "EPZs should be in place to provide defense-in-depth because the probability of an accident involving a significant release of radioactive material, although small, is not zero," Baran wrote.
For that reason, emergency planning experts have recommended the planning zone remain in place until all spent fuel on a reactor site is stored in dry casks.
About 3,000 radioactive spent fuel rods remain in a massive pool at Pilgrim.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, blasted the NRC's decision to exempt Pilgrim from emergency planning requirements.
"Pilgrim should not get an exemption for key emergency preparedness and planning regulations while dangerous nuclear spent fuel is still cooling in open pools and threatening local residents," Markey said in a statement. "The NRC's decision is shocking but not surprising to all of us who have watched how the public's concerns have been consistently ignored during the decommissioning process of the Pilgrim plant."
Markey said he planned to reintroduce legislation to keep "key protections" in place.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she previously had raised concerns about the lack of public input related to the plant shutdown and license transfer.
"The Southeastern Massachusetts community has rightly continued to raise important questions about the plant's decommissioning and they deserve answers, not more strong-arming," she said in a statement.
To date, every nuclear plant in the U.S. that has decommissioned has requested an exemption from the emergency planning requirements, and in every instance the NRC has granted it.
State Sen. Viriato "Vinny" deMacedo, R-Plymouth, said he was "very disappointed but not surprised" by the decision.
"The reality is that even though the plant is not operating, we still have 3,000 spent fuel rods in a pool," deMacedo said. It could be up to five years before all the fuel is transferred into cement and steel dry casks, he said.
Diane Turco, a Harwich resident and president of the Cape Downwinders, called the exemption "another serious example of the NRC's captured role to protect the industry profit, not the public."
State Attorney General Maura Healey sued the NRC last month for approving the transfer of Pilgrim's license from Entergy Corp. to Holtec International without first listening to what state officials and the public had to say about it. Healey contends Holtec is inexperienced in decommissioning and will likely run out of money before the job is done.
Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.
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