The following is the second in an ongoing series of articles being published in the Old Colony Memorial newspaper of Plymouth and on the Wicked Local website.

By Karen Vale, Cape Cod Bay Watch
Published Nov. 16, 2012

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and most recently Fukushima – these catastrophic nuclear accidents thrust the debate about the safety of nuclear power into the public spotlight. Fukushima also triggered a critical examination of nuclear stations with the same type and operational design as the reactors that failed in March 2011. In the U.S., there are 23 reactors with the same design as Fukushima – including Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (Pilgrim) on Cape Cod Bay in Plymouth.

Like Fukushima, Pilgrim is not immune to serious natural disasters or human error. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC; the regulatory body that oversees nuclear safety in the U.S.) risk estimates rank Pilgrim second in the nation for likelihood that an earthquake could cause core damage – a risk that has increased 763 percent since the 1980s. In 1986, an emergency shutdown was required due to recurring equipment problems, which lead to a Senate hearing on the safety of Pilgrim. Again, just this past spring, the facility was shut down after an equipment failure.

Mark I reactor

Pilgrim is a General Electric Mark I reactor, a design criticized by both nuclear experts and the NRC as being susceptible to containment failure and explosion. The Mark I reactor is designed to contain steam that builds up from overheating. It diverts steam into a tank, or “torus,” where it condenses and reduces pressure inside the reactor containment building.

The inability of the Mark I reactor to handle immense pressure buildup in an emergency led Pilgrim to install a relief vent as a quick “fix.” The same vent design was tested three times in Fukushima and failed, resulting in three explosions. The unfiltered vent would also release harmful radiation directly into the environment if an accident were to occur.

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry leader, told Democracy Now that all reactors with the Mark I design should be shut down – due to the faulty relief vents and the fact that Mark I reactors are set up so fuel is stored unsafely near the facility roofs.[i] Essentially, they are inherently unsafe. Mr. Gundersen stated, “there’s more nuclear Cesium-137 in the fuel pool at the plant in Pilgrim, Massachusetts, than was ever released by every nuclear bomb ever exploded in the atmosphere.”

Aging structure

Nuclear facilities are licensed to operate for forty years and all have experienced age-related degradation before the termination of their original license. Despite this, the NRC continues to extend licenses to facilities throughout the U.S.

· Pilgrim’s reactor has the same design flaw as Fukushima – a relief vent installed as a quick “fix” for a containment structure that cannot withstand pressure buildup; the vent was tested three times in Fukushima and failed, resulting in explosions.

· There have been incidents of radiation-linked disease in surrounding communities.

· Pilgrim uses more than 500,000 gallons of Cape Cod Bay’s water each day to cool its reactor – harming marine life and degrading biologically important habitats.

· Pilgrim’s permit to operate its “once-through” cooling system expired 16 years ago.

· Radioactive tritium is polluting groundwater, which flows into Cape Cod Bay.

Working toward a Solution

If Pilgrim is to operate for another 20 years, concerned residents must insist that government regulators take notice of the issue, request assessments of the effects Pilgrim has on species and habitats in the bay, and demand Pilgrim obtain valid permits and certifications required under the law. It’s up to individuals to hold regulators accountable for failing to implement various laws and regulations.

Karen Vale is the campaign coordinator at Cape Cod Bay Watch. Cape Cod Bay Watch is dedicated to protecting and restoring water quality and marine life in Cape Cod Bay through public education, networking, and advocacy. Its current priority is addressing the harmful effects of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station – especially its destructive “once-through cooling” system – on water quality and marine life in the bay.