To much relief for its South Shore neighbors, the Pilgrim Nuclear power-plant in Plymouth, MA shut down for the last time, without a disaster, around 5:30 Friday afternoon, May 31, 2019. For nuclear power in Massachusetts, it was the end of an error–beginning the necropsy of a failed design.
At closing, the Pilgrim plant was scheduled to be mothballed, although it may eventually be dismantled. A 47-year accumulation of spent fuel will be stored indefinitely in tall casks–located in the open at the plant site–until there is a federal repository for high-level nuclear waste that accepts it. The only such facility–at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada–was mothballed in 2010 before it opened, and there are no current plans to revive it or to design and build a different facility.
Risk-prone design: In the mid-1960s, when the Pilgrim plant was being planned, industry critics faulted the GE Mark I containment–a core feature of the plant–as a risk-prone design with poor resilience against major disturbances. However, like today’s counterparts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a politically motivated Atomic Energy Commission of the 1960s refused to intervene.
In 1975, a fire at the Browns Ferry Nuclear plant in Alabama confirmed that the design was unreliable. That plant has three Mark I reactors, the largest U.S. installation using the same base design as the Pilgrim plant. There are dozens of ways a nuclear power-plant might be threatened. The Browns Ferry plant came within about an hour of collapse from the fire, started by irresponsible activity during a safety inspection.
Alert citizens have known since 1975 that the base design for the Pilgrim plant was hazardous. So far, operators of Mark I plants in the U.S. were lucky. While no incident took the Pilgrim plant beyond its limits, in 1982 operator Boston Edison paid about a million in current dollars as fines for careless practices. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency closed Pilgrim during 1986-1989 for gross mismanagement.
Near-disaster and tragedy: Risk-prone as it has been, Pilgrim Nuclear ranked above the bottom of the list for nuclear safety. That dishonor probably applies best to the Davis-Besse Nuclear power-plant near Toledo, Ohio. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Davis–Besse has been the source of two of the five most dangerous nuclear incidents in the U.S. since the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown.
It took the March, 2011 tragedy at Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan to convince most of the world to abandon a nuclear dinosaur. Three reactors using the same base design as the Pilgrim plant failed and exploded, while the spent-fuel storage facility of a fourth reactor blew out its walls and roof. What remains in Massachusetts is to pack up high-level nuclear waste from decades of operation at the Pilgrim plant, until a repository suitable for at least 100,000 years of isolation accepts it.
In New England alone, high-level nuclear waste from closed reactors is already a long-term hazard at sites of the former Maine Yankee, Vermont Yankee, Connecticut Yankee, Yankee Rowe (MA) and Millstone 1 (CT). All have current storage of spent fuel near major water bodies, often located outdoors. Under such circumstances, commercial nuclear-waste storage casks have rated lifetimes of a few decades. At the glacial pace of progress toward a permanent, federal repository, the 40-year rated “design life” for a Holtec “HI-STORM” cask [Safety analysis, Sec. 3.4.12, p. 203 of 2,071] will prove to be too short.
Costs and consequences: Under the Price-Anderson Act [Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act of 1957, Public Law 85-256] the federal governemt has been assuming the great majority of risks from nuclear-power disasters. So far, U.S. taxpayers have largely been spared. Cleanup costs after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 totaled around $760 million when closed out in 1993. The U.S. government was caught flat-footed; it managed to evade overt liabilities by entering into “research contracts” with the Three Mile Island plant owner.
Luck may not hold. Disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 are likely to produce worldwide, long-term losses and costs in the trillions of dollars–much of that as health issues and shortened lives of individuals. If the U.S. nuclear power operators were being charged realistic insurance premiums, they would be paying more than $100 billion a year–liabilities now being loaded onto U.S. taxpayers.
New England has two prior examples of dismantling nuclear power-plants: Yankee Rowe in Rowe, MA and Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, ME. At both, spent fuel was stored in casks outside former buildings, on concrete pads. Holtec “HI-STORM” casks currently installed and proposed at Pilgrim have been a poor choice for supporting ultimate removal of high-level nuclear waste to a federal repository. At 173 tons each, they are too heavy to transport on U.S. standard railroads, and they are too heavy and too wide to transport using flat-bed trucks on U.S. standard highways.
– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, May 31, 2019
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