Concern about nuclear safety is gaining visibility south of Boston as voters in several communities determine the fate of a petition that aims to shut down, at least temporarily, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.
Although the nonbinding questions focus on making the plant safe, rather than closing it permanently, they would, in effect, endorse closing it down for more than four years.
A Town Meeting article passed in Duxbury, Kingston, and Scituate. Marshfield Town Meeting is expected to vote April 23, and Plymouth takes up the issue by ballot May 12. A number of Cape Cod communities are planning votes, as well.
The wording of the article is not identical in all communities. The Duxbury version bore stronger language, saying the town “opposes continued operation’’ of the station until Pilgrim has implemented all the safety improvements the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended in response to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, precipitated by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11 2011.
The article was rephrased in Scituate before the Board of Selectmen endorsed it. Rather than say the town opposes Pilgrim’s operation, the article says Scituate opposes relicensing until the safety changes are complete. Pilgrim’s license expires in June, and Entergy, the company that owns the plant, is seeking a 20-year renewal.
Members of the Pilgrim Coalition, a network of area residents and organizations, petitioned the towns to put the issue to a vote. They warn that any sustained loss of electricity at the plant, regardless of the cause, could trigger a nuclear meltdown.
Critics have suggested that the language of the articles is vague. Tony Vegnani, chairman of the Scituate Board of Selectmen, voted against recommending Town Meeting approval. In an interview, he said he agreed with the general premise about safety, but not with the “very strong’’ wording.
In anticipation of Marshfield’s upcoming vote, the Marshfield Board of Selectmen invited a representative from Entergy to address the board.
On Monday, Jack Alexander, manager of government affairs for Entergy, told the board that Japan’s proximity to fault lines exposes it to “a tremendous amount of risk’’ not present at Pilgrim. “We don’t think there is much of a risk of a tsunami on the east coast of the United States,’’ he said.
Alexander said employees receive a full week of training on emergency response every sixth week. The plant has 14 hours of battery backup and three emergency generators that could power the plant for seven days each, he said. And it has future plans to use remote generators that could run indefinitely, he said.
Anna Baker, a member of the Pilgrim Coalition steering committee who petitioned the town of Marshfield to include a Pilgrim article on the Town Meeting warrant, disputed Alexander’s assertions. She told the board Entergy focuses on talking about tsunamis because it wants the public to think only a tsunami could trigger a crisis at Pilgrim. But she said that any power outage could do the same.
Baker said that the battery backup would last only eight hours, a number she said Entergy had previously supplied to Pilgrim Watch, and that the plant would not have 21 days of generator power if the generators were compromised.
After the meeting, Alexander said the eight-hour battery life applies to full operation of the facility, but in an emergency, nonessential electrical use could be turned off, giving the plant 14 hours of power.
Nuclear plants need electricity for their cooling systems. Overheating can cause explosions, as it did in Japan, and release radiation into the air.
The Los Angeles Times and other news organizations reported last week that nuclear particles released at Fukushima Daiichi have been detected in kelp along the California coast.
In Marshfield, Baker called Entergy’s profit motive “the root of the problem.’’ Any information coming from the company is colored by its desire to make money, she said.
Marshfield selectmen chose not to vote on Baker’s article, saying that they were not comfortable with the wording and that the board does not usually vote on petition articles. Chairman John Hall said he agreed with the article “in theory.’’
He encouraged Baker to work with the Advisory Board to revise the wording, but he did not say how it should be changed. Earlier in the meeting, Advisory Board member Carlos Peña said he could support an article promoting safe operation of the plant. But regarding the article as written, he said, “I don’t know how productive this would be.’’
Longtime Pilgrim watchdog Mary Lampert, a Duxbury resident, said in an interview that she knows local activism will not stop the plant from winning a new license, but that she hopes it will build a political base.
She aims to work for better safety, an emergency plan more stringent than the federal government requires, and continued state ground-water monitoring for the presence of tritium, a radioactive material.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley asked the NRC in May of last year not to relicense Pilgrim until the agency finishes reviewing the lessons of Fukushima. The agency denied her request, and on April 5, 2012, she filed an appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
In an ideal world, Lampert said, she would like to see the plant closed. “If I were God and could snap my fingers, yeah, I’d like it closed,’’ she said. “What I’m trying to do is be realistic.’’
When asked if the Pilgrim Coalition wants the plant permanently closed, Baker said the group is focused on Pilgrim meeting federal safety requirements and has not taken a position on nuclear energy at large.
Meeting the initial requirements could take more than four years. In March, the NRC issued three new safety orders, the first set of requirements based on what the commission learned from Fukushima.
Plants must meet the standards by the end of 2016 or within two refueling outages, whichever comes first. An internal task force made numerous other recommendations to the commission not included in the rules issued in March.