The first Nor’easter of the season is hitting southeastern Mass. this Wed.-Fri., Oct. 22-24, 2014. This storm probably won’t be remembered for its intensity, but rather for its duration. It is expected to move slowly through the area, bringing high winds (30-45 mph; though gusts in our area are predicted to be less according to NOAA), heavy surf, and rain (about 1-3”) to southeastern Mass. for about three days. The long duration of the storm is causing concern among some about erosion in coastal areas.

A Nor’easter is a low pressure storm with continuously strong winds blowing in from the northeast direction. These storms can occur any time in the year, but are strongest between October and April.

Nor’easters are a concern because Pilgrim faces northeast and is not protected by any land mass in that direction. While this week’s storm is not expected to be severe in Plymouth, it’s important to understand the potential implications that a Nor’easter can have on a coastally-sited nuclear plant such as Pilgrim.

Pilgrim’s reactor building is located at about 20 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL) and its dry cask storage area will be at about 24 feet above MSL. However, the estimated velocity flood zone for the site is 16-18 feet above MSL, which does not take in to account more than 2 feet of wave action. In order to know the real impacts of a storm and flooding on the Pilgrim site, one must also consider storm surge, wave height, sea level rise, and the timing of high tides.

There will be five high tide events between Wednesday and Friday, when the Nor’easter is here. During these high tide events the risks increase.

  • Wednesday: 9.94’ at 11:00 am
  • Wednesday: 9.63’ at 11:20 pm
  • Thursday: 10.26’ at 11:30 am
  • Friday: 9.78’ at 12:00 am
  • Friday: 10.56’ at 12:15 pm

These are very average high tides. High tides in our area typically range from about 7.5 to 12.6 feet. When wind piles up water from the northeast, a “storm surge” of a few feet or more can add to the high tide and then waves can pile on top of that. Significant wind driven waves from the northeast can easily achieve 15 to 30 feet over the tide and surge. These are the conditions we believe threaten our safety and the environment, largely due to the position of the Pilgrim site, the location of Pilgrim’s nuclear waste storage area, and the general attitude demonstrated by Entergy’s recent application to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to “fix” the problems that could develop with loss of power at Pilgrim.

Plymouth tides for 10/20/2014-10/27/2014. (NOAA)

Plymouth tides for 10/20/2014-10/27/2014. (NOAA)

Nor’easters and other storms can threaten the Pilgrim’s cooling system that is essential to safe operations, as well as the dry cask nuclear waste storage facility being constructed only about 150 feet from the shore of the Bay. For example, damaging winds, flooding or storm surge could damage Pilgrim’s cooling system or disable the pumps needed to bring cooling water into the facility, could impede the dry casks’ ventilation systems that allow passive cooling of the radioactive waste stored inside, or cause the facility to loose offsite power (which it needs to operate the pumps). If the water in Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool was not kept cool, it would boil and evaporate, exposing the highly radioactive fuel rods to air and leading to fire and explosions. Same goes for the fuel rods in Pilgrim’s reactor as well as the nuclear waste stored inside the casks. The public and the health of the environment are at risk every time a strong storm, especially a Nor’easter, passes through the area.

In order to maintain operating pumps, Pilgrim relies on emergency backup generators. This is the same system that failed during the Fukushima accident and has put Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and the global environment in jeopardy. The tsunami that impacted the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility flooded its backup generators, causing failures and cutting power to the pumps – overheating and ultimately melting down. We don’t need a tsunami to flood the pumps at Pilgrim – an intense nor’easter at high tide would do the trick.

What happened at Fukushima led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require nuclear facilities to develop and implement “Fukushima fixes” – basically emergency backup systems to prevent a similar occurrence in the United States.

Entergy recently asked the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a 30-year permit under the Public Waterfront Act to use the public lands along the Cape Cod Bay shoreline to install equipment for an emergency cooling water system – as a way to comply with the NRC’s “Fukumshima Fixes” order. But Entergy’s “Fukushima fix” is flawed. Pilgrim would essentially deploy a truck load of workers along an access road being built on the shoreline. The workers would use a pulley system attached to mooring buoys offshore to haul in flexible plastic hoses to manually cool Pilgrim’s equipment. This system would be dangerous and useless – even in the moderate Nor’easter that is impacting us this week. Read more reasons why Pilgrim’s “fix” is flawed →

So although we don’t think that this week’s Nor’easter is a significant cause for alarm, it’s important to remember how these storms can present a significant hazard for Pilgrim that faces northeast to the full fetch of Cape Cod Bay and beyond.

We just learned that the DEP will host a Public Hearing at Plymouth Town Hall at 10AM on November 18th to consider the license request for the Fukushima Fix at Pilgrim. Please join us there! Read more about the hearing →