Islanders express concerns about Pilgrim nuclear

Senator Dan Wolf shared his concerns about the Pilgrim Nuclear Station at a public forum Tuesday. West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel is in the background. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts may have the authority to shut down the embattled Pilgrim nuclear power plant, State Sen. Dan Wolf (D-Cape and Islands) told about 60 people in Vineyard Haven Monday night during a panel discussion on the nuclear plant and related environmental issues.

“Let’s be clear. We are not having an energy discussion here tonight. We are having a public safety discussion,” the founder of Cape Air airline said.

Cape and Island opponents of the 40-year-old Pilgrim nuclear power station in Plymouth applauded the second-term senator’s assessment of a letter to the state from the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates nuclear power plants at the federal level.

Mr. Wolf made his remarks at an event titled, “Could Fukushima Happen Here?” a reference to the partial meltdown in 2011 of the nuclear plant in Japan. He was joined at the Katharine Cornell Theatre by representatives of Cape Downwinders, Cape Cod Baywatch, and Pilgrim Watch, three groups opposed to the continued operation of the Pilgrim station. The discussion was sponsored by, The Gay Head Gallery, and the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Wolf said the landscape has changed as the result of a letter from NRC chairman Allison M. McFarlane to outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick. “The letter is telling the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, if you want to shut down that power plant, we’re not going to get in your way.  That is a very powerful letter,” he said.

Ms. McFarlane’s letter, dated June 9, said, “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has the overall authority for making protective action decisions (e.g., sheltering and evacuation) to ensure the safety of Massachusetts residents during a radiological event. In addition, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency maintains the FEMA-approved State Radiological Emergency Plan for implementing those decisions. Therefore, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a significant role in determining the adequacy of Pilgrim’s Emergency Preparedness program.”

Noting that an effective emergency plan in place is a requirement of licensing a nuclear power plant, Mr. Wolf said, “We have been told over and over again that the state has a very perfunctory role in this (matter).”

The NRC recently relicensed Pilgrim by downgrading its performance level. Under intense pressure, including a statehouse sit-in by groups opposed to the plant, Gov. Patrick sent a letter of concern dated March 17 to the NRC. The June 9 NRC letter was its response.

Entergy, Pilgrim’s owner, will shut down its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant this year, citing competition from lower-priced natural gas. The Louisiana-based energy provider and distributor operates nuclear energy plants in eight states.

West Tisbury selectmen Richard Knabel,offered a comment before the meeting began that became a mantra for the evening. Quoting anti-nuclear activist Arnie Gunderson, he said, “Forty good years can be followed by one very bad day that will last 100 years.” Mr. Knabel noted that 21 Cape and Island communities had passed a resolution at annual town meetings this year requesting Gov. Patrick to call for a NRC shutdown.

Speakers focused on three major themes: the impact Pilgrim has on its environment; the impact on people and the land in the event of a Fukishima-type accident; and risks at Pilgrim before and after decommissioning.

More than 14 million fish, 160 billion mussels and other aquatic sea life die each year in Cape Cod Bay as a result of interaction with the Pilgrim cooling system, Karen Vale, a wildlife biologist and campaign manager at Cape Cod Bay Watch.

Mary Lampert of Duxbury, founder of Pilgrim Watch more than two decades ago, provided a map with concentric bull’s-eyes that estimated 3,000 immediate and 23,000 long-term losses of life in the event of a Pilgrim nuclear accident.

Diane Turco of Cape Downwinders unveiled two crudely drawn MEMA maps of the Cape bridges which indicate that the bridges would be closed in the event of a nuclear accident with residents advised to “shelter in place.”

Ms. Turco joined Sen. Wolf in his call to pressure legislators. “The political landscape will be different in six months, enabling us to put pressure on state government,” she said.

“Now is the time to get commitments from candidates, in writing, about what they intend to do about this,” Mr. Wolf said.

During a brief question and answer period, West Tisbury resident Anna Edey, a solar energy proponent, said a financial solution, requiring more expensive safety systems is the right strategy because “the political process takes too long.”