Mr. Bill Maurer is a retired construction Project Manager, a Falmouth resident, and a volunteer with both the Cape Downwinders and Cape Cod Bay Watch. Here he writes about the problems and shutdown experienced by Pilgrim due to Winter Storm “Juno,” the history of Pilgrim’s problems, concerns about evacuation plans during storms, and ponders the important question “How close is too close?”

The Jan. 27th Nor’easter nicknamed “Juno” presented Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (PNPS) in Plymouth, MA with conditions it could not cope with and continue operations. That’s not NEWS. PNPS similarly failed in the blizzard conditions of the February, 2013 Nor’easter. A repeat performance failure was anticipated and a precautionary shutdown was called for by several local groups and many members of the public.

Historically Pilgrim has experienced unplanned automatic shutdowns (SCRAM) due to a Loss of Offsite Power (LOOP) a total of 19 times since beginning to operate, the most common LOOP events occurring during extreme winter conditions:

  • 5 times due to Blizzards, Ice, Snow
  • 4 times due to High Winds, Salt Build up
  • 4 times due to Lightning Strikes
  • 2 times due to Storms
  • 2 times due to Power Supply Transfers
  • 1 time due to a Forest Fire
  • 1 time due to a Solar Storm

It’s alarming that Entergy (PNPS owner and operator) chose to put profit over public safety in the face of a predictable forced shutdown during this Nor’easter ignoring predictions of extreme winter conditions of historical proportions: “crippling snowfall” from one to three feet, “life-threatening blizzard conditions” and hurricane force winds. To no one’s surprise there was a LOOP and SCRAM resulting in the following reports and benign characterizations on January 27th:

  • Entergy’s Senior Communications Specialist, Lauren Burm reported “All safety systems worked as designed and plant conditions are currently stable. There’s was never any threat to the safety of plant workers or the public.”
  • The state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Matt Beaton reported “There is no public safety hazard at this time.”

In reality Pilgrim experienced anything but the cookbook SCRAM portrayed above. Multiple critical safety systems and equipment malfunctioned or failed. Similarly the NRC also chose to minimize the malfunctions describing them as “challenges” but on the other hand immediately sent a special team to Pilgrim to investigate:

  • NRC Regional 1 Administrator Dan Dorman said, “The Pilgrim reactor was safely shut down. Nevertheless, we want to examine more closely the challenges that surfaced during the event, including safety system and equipment problems and the loss of the two off-site power lines.”
  • A six-member NRC team was sent to Pilgrim tasked with “reviewing equipment issues that occurred during the shutdown, including the partial loss of off-site power, the failure of a condensate pump motor associated with the plant’s High-Pressure Coolant Injection (HPCI) system and the malfunctioning of one of the plant’s four safety relief valves.”
  • “…there was (also) a loss of instrument air at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (PNPS). Follow-up evaluations of the plant events that occurred on that day (Jan 27th) revealed that the loss of instrument air resulted in a loss of water level indicators in the seawater intake bays. “

It’s crystal clear that Pilgrim’s safety systems didn’t work without a hitch as reported to the public by Entergy’s Lauren Burm. Similarly the state’s assurance of public safety seemingly throughout the emergency is also suspect with semantics like this, “There is no public safety hazard at this time (italics added),” as reported by State Energy Secretary Matt Beaton.

A former Nuclear Plant Manager and Licensed Senior Nuclear Reactor Operator commenting on this Pilgrim LOOP SCRAM to the NRC said, “No responsible plant owner and operator should allow for such lousy maintenance practices at a nuclear power plant….Pilgrim should remain shut down and should be placed on the NRC troubled plant list.” You can read more of his posts about PNPS to the NRC under the pseudonym Public Pit Bull here.

It boils down to a couple of simple questions:

  • How close of a close call was this?
  • How close was Entergy to pushing the panic button?

The understated public reporting by Entergy and State Officials creates a question of trust. I would very much like to see all of the communications between the NRC, Entergy, PNPS and the State of Massachusetts from January 27th to February 7th, 2015 to judge the tenor of this experience for myself.

Entergy and State officials have not even acknowledged the fact that if the sirens had sounded and an evacuation was ordered, no one was going anywhere. People would have been stuck for at least two days until whiteout conditions subsided and roads were cleared. During extreme winter conditions even the best Pilgrim radiological emergency evacuation planning is, for all practical purposes, useless. Yet Entergy chose to roll the dice and continue operations in severe winter conditions that Pilgrim historically couldn’t withstand. In my book this is unacceptable risk-taking behavior.

The state ordered a traffic ban during this Nor’easter, the appropriate decision but interestingly inconsistent with Pilgrim and the state’s long-standing last resort emergency planning for a Pilgrim emergency, EVACUATION. Common sense dictates that when weather conditions make travel/evacuation impossible a mandatory precautionary preemptive planned shutdown of PNPS should be triggered. This removes the risk of falling victim to an unplanned emergency SCRAM gone bad when people are snowbound or otherwise trapped by weather in their homes or in public shelters. Pilgrim LOOP events are predictably coincident with extreme weather events.

Another obvious question comes to mind. If this PNPS SCRAM had escalated to an evacuation order, how many snow removal personnel (and within the first responder community for that matter) can realistically be expected to abandon their families to heroically work through a radiological emergency to make roads passable? The influences of social phenomena and behavior are completely ignored by current radiological emergency planning at PNPS and elsewhere.

In terms of unplanned shutdowns, PNPS is one of the nine worst performing commercial reactors in the United States, out of approximately one hundred reactors currently in operation. This latest SCRAM solidly confirms continued deficiencies in Pilgrim’s practice of less than adequate safety equipment performance testing, exercising, repair and maintenance programs. PNPS is also the same boiling water reactor (BWR) design as the three reactors in Fukushima, having the matching inherent containment flaw that contributed to their meltdowns. In terms of risk assessment, since the beginning with Atoms for Peace during the Eisenhower administration professional risk takers (money lenders and insurance providers) have refused to bet their money on commercial nuclear safety. With Pilgrim’s repetitive failures and deteriorating condition with age the odds become increasingly favorable for an irreversible radiological accident unfolding, resulting in permanent consequences.

If allowed Entergy will continue pushing PNPS to operate beyond its design life expectancy (which was 2012) until unprofitable. This Nor’easter was a small scale demonstration of Entergy’s preference to “challenge” PNPS equipment and personnel to the limits of their tolerance and capabilities, gambling with safety against profit. The recent labor relations dispute in 2012 and the layoffs in 2013 support and speak directly to this observation of Entergy’s culture and value systems.

After President Obama’s recent visit to India where he lobbied for and gained liability loopholes for US nuclear reactor manufacturers and suppliers wanting to sell their products to India I’ve come to conclusion that the Federal Government and the NRC are actually shadow investors (through direct and indirect subsidies) and business partners with the US nuclear industry. On the national and global levels, nuclear is just another industry that has achieved the “too big to fail and too big to jail” corporate status, essentially immune to the criminal consequences with limited liability for the risks they expose the public too.

So the buck stops here, at the local level where the question of “How close is too close?” is left to be determined by the people who literally and figuratively have all of their skin in the game. With increasing numbers many believe it’s time state, county and town officials seriously evaluate Pilgrim’s safety and performance record for themselves, listen to the smart money (the bankers and insurers), insist on the permanent closure of Pilgrim and get the citizens of the Commonwealth out of this increasingly dangerous gamble overhanging our well-being and public safety.

As I’m writing this I’m listening to the NEWS reporting Charlie Baker’s disappointment with the MBTA’s performance during this storm. With respect to PNPS, the Governor needs to take a hard look at the state agencies he is directly responsible for: the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). MEMA, DPH and the Governor are directly responsible for the approval, oversight and administration of PNPS Radiological Emergency Planning handed off to them from the NRC, FEMA and Entergy. If an evacuation had been ordered during this Nor’easter, the MBTA’s failure would pale in comparison to MEMA’s failure to successfully cope with a PNPS radiological emergency.