Lesley University intern, Marcel Howard, writes about the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant and how it relates to Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, MA. Marcel is a 3rd year student at Lesley, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies and will be focusing on issues related to Pilgrim’s nuclear waste storage project for the semester.
On December 29, 2014, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant went offline for the last time. According to its owner, Entergy, the plant was no longer “economically viable.” However, this was after Entergy dragged the State of Vermont through a long and costly litigation process, which was created when the State asked Entergy to, “cease operations in light of new evidence that neither Entergy nor the aging facility at Yankee was reliable.”
Rather than enhancing the property for other use in a timely manner, Entergy opted to push decommissioning up to sixty-years down the road under a program known as SAFSTOR. SAFSTOR is also referred to as “deferred dismantling,” where a nuclear facility just sits untouched until (typically) 60 years later when the plant is finally dismantled and the property decontaminated.
Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning funds will be used to cover expenses related to maintaining spent nuclear waste onsite – never an intended use of these funds. Because of added costs due to unforeseen complications and inflation, it is now less likely that there will be sufficient funds to complete decommissioning – even within the sixty-year time frame.
Along with Entergy’s continued “childish” behaviors on the Yankee plant situation, it has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to allow it to “shrink” its responsibilities from the normal 10-mile emergency preparedness zone around the plant down to the footprint of the facility’s 148 acres. However, the NRC has noted Entergy’s claim that, “there are no postulated accidents that could result in dose consequences that are large enough to require offsite emergency planning” is inaccurate. The NRC also stated that, “in the unlikely event that there is a catastrophic loss of spent fuel pool water inventory, there is a potential for an offsite release of radioactive material.”
In Feb. 2015, Vermont’s Health Department found a radioactive isotope in groundwater at the closed Yankee Power Station. Strontium-90 was reportedly found at levels below the EPA’s safe drinking water threshold (4 millirem per year or 8 picoCuries per liter of water). Strontium-90 is a by-product of the fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear reactors and is considered one of the more hazardous constituents of nuclear wastes. As it decays, it releases radiation. Srontium-90 is referred to as a “bone seeker” and is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone, and leukemia. Risk of cancer increases with increased exposure to Sr-90 and any of this substance leaking into our groundwater is cause for concern.
Even with this discovery, in early March 2015 the NRC gave their seal of approval to Entergy’s proposal to reduce its commitment to emergency response at Vermont Yankee. By April 2016, the plant will be disconnected from the emergency sirens that dot the landscape within the 10-mile EPZ. Entergy will also stop sending batteries to those who have emergency radios, will no longer pay for iodine tablets, and won’t send yearly calendars (that include emergency guidance) to all those who live and work in the EPZ. However, with Entergy’s lack luster approach to decommissioning, the drawn out timeframe of 60 years, and the fact that nuclear waste will be sitting in the spent fuel pool for years, the NRC should rethink its decision. There could be a variety of future unforeseen problems that could arise over the next 60 years.
Unfortunately, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, MA could be headed on the same problematic path as the Yankee power plant. According to Pilgrim Watch Director, Mary Lampert, “Pilgrim is losing money, and like Vermont Yankee, it can’t compete.” However, according to Entergy, “Entergy has no plans to shutter Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station at this time.”
Even with Entergy’s statement that it will not shut down Pilgrim anytime soon, critics continue to point out that the plant is unreliable, a major source of pollution, and without subsidies, will cannot operate profitably. These critics are what have officials turning their attention to the possibility that, like Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim could shut down in the near future. Local residents and officials need to realize that, like Vermont Yankee, Plymouth could remain home to tons of radioactive nuclear waste long after Pilgrim turns the key off and Entergy may not have the funds to properly decommission and clean up the site in a timely manner.