Meadville Tribune

Opinion

April 11, 2014

Can we trust luck when it comes to the nuclear industry?

Let’s review the history to better understand a major concern of today.

In 2011, Japanese nuclear power generating station Fukushima Daiichi was damaged by a major earthquake and tsunami. Three of its six reactors were shut down for maintenance at the time, and the three still operating automatically “scramed” when the earthquake struck. By doing so, they stopped generating the electricity needed to power the plant’s cooling-water system.

When the 43-foot to 49-foot high saltwater surge came ashore 50 minutes later, it overtopped the plant’s 33-foot seawalls and flooded the basement housing emergency diesel generators that were supposed to keep the cooling water flowing. Emergency batteries then took over but were only designed to last a few hours, and outside power was not restored until long after they failed. Denied cooling water, the reactors overheated, partially melting some of the metal-clad fuel rods and generating hydrogen gas. Hydrogen explosions then damaged the reactors further and impeded recovery efforts.

In a Tribune column at the time (“Reactor trouble may make quake, tsunami look tame,” March 18, 2011), I said that long-term consequences were a given. But it would be naive to assume that they would be confined to Japan. Nor have they been. A case-in-point is now coming to a head in New England — specifically in America’s longest-standing hotbed of civil debate: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The issue is Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station, located (ironically?) at Plymouth. Yes, that’s the place where the Pilgrims (following a brief overnight on Cape Cod) came ashore to erect their first New World settlement. That places it 35 miles south of Boston, the 10th largest metropolitan statistical area in the U.S. with a 2010 population of 4,552,402. When adjacent political jurisdictions are included, it becomes our sixth largest combined statistical area, with a population of 7,893,376.

Constructed in 1972 by Bechtel Corporation and powered by a General Electric BWR 3 boiling water reactor, Pilgrim has a generating capacity of 690 Megawatts — 14 percent of Massachusetts’ electricity consumption. It was originally built for Boston Edison, a major electricity supplier on the Massachusetts coast, but was sold in 1999 to Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation. One practical consequence is that Pilgrim is now owned not by a corporation headquartered a few miles away in Boston, but one half the country away in Texas.

Several troubling aspects about Pilgrim cause growing unease among Bay Staters. For one, it was built using mid-20th century nuclear plant technology — the same used to engineer Fukushima. It was licensed to operate for 40 years; but in 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission relicensed it to operate an additional 20 years. So when that authorization expires in 2032, Pilgrim will be 60 years old, well beyond the normal lifespan of any power plant.

Pilgrim was designed to store 880 used fuel rods on site, a system employed throughout the U.S. nuclear industry for “temporary storage.” But neither a place nor a system has been devised to store or reprocess the enormous burden of deadly material that the industry generates. So Pilgrim now stores 3,200 spent fuel rods, pushing four times as many as it was designed for, and over twice as many as were stored at Fukushima when it was crippled. That’s not only inherently dangerous, it’s a seductively tempting target for terrorists.

Finally, Pilgrim’s cooling system draws 500 million gallons of water a day from Cape Cod Bay to maintain safe operating temperatures in the reactor. Not only does it cause enormous ecological damage to the bay; the system is backed up by outdated equipment that could break down in a severely disruptive event, subjecting the plant to catastrophic failure.

The industry assures us that everything is fine: there are no problems, and if one arises, their engineers will handle it. Do we believe them? Have we forgotten the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989? Or the 2010 conflagration that collapsed the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico? What about the 2013 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people, injured 66 others, and incinerated 38 homes? How many coal mine disasters have you read about in your lifetime?

In the energy industry, largely considered, we content ourselves with accident prevention rates of something like 99 percent. Each event causes momentary public outrage, at least at the local level. But the furor soon subsides and we’re back to business as usual.

With nuclear energy, nothing short of 100 percent accident prevention will suffice. The costs in human life and health, environmental degradation, and economic calamity of reaching only 99.99 percent are too terrifying for most of us to grasp. When’s the last time any energy industry achieved anything close to that?

Up to now, we’ve been lucky. Question is, how much longer are we willing to trust luck?

Don Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at stinkweed272@gmail.com.

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