Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey is calling on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure that the spent fuel at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station and other nuclear plants around the country is safely protected from rising seas.
In a letter sent Monday to the commission’s chairman, Markey expressed “serious concerns” about the plant’s plans to store the radioactive material in more than 60 large cylinders called dry casks, eight of which are just 200 feet from the shoreline at an elevation of about 25 feet above Plymouth Bay.
“As plants like Pilgrim shutter across the nation and plan to store spent nuclear fuel on site for years — even decades — to come, it is imperative that these plants and the NRC regulations fully consider the impacts of climate change on dangerous nuclear waste,” Markey wrote to Kristine L. Svinicki.
Pilgrim is slated to close by June of next year.
“The NRC regulations must ensure that dry casks are not vulnerable to flooding, corrosion, and other damage, especially as climate change contributes to rising sea levels and increasingly severe and unpredictable storms,” he added.
Markey, who cited a recent Boston Globe story on the issue, asked Svinicki to respond to questions about whether climate change projections are factored into the commission’s safety standards and regulations overseeing decommissioned nuclear plants.
In the coming months, officials at Pilgrim plan to announce whether they will keep the spent fuel at its existing location or build a new storage site on higher ground.
Environmental advocates have urged the state to require Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based conglomerate that owns Pilgrim, to move the casks to its helipad or parking lot, which are three times higher than the existing storage site and set further back from the water.
NRC officials have said they have no reason to believe that the current location is a problem. They note that Pilgrim and other nuclear plants were required to reevaluate their vulnerability to flooding in the aftermath of the tsunami that ravaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 meltdown in Chernobyl.
“The NRC is satisfied that Pilgrim’s post-Fukushima flooding reevaluation and the agency’s associated review are reasonable and account for the latest information regarding climate trends, including sea level rise,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the commission.
Regulators continue to study the risks posed by rising sea levels to the nation’s nuclear plants and their spent fuel, but they say the casks would remain safe even if submerged in water, Sheehan said.
“The NRC’s conservative evaluation of partial or full submersion . . . is that adequate cooling of the spent fuel would be maintained and the fuel would remain in the dry cask storage system,” he said.
Markey, however, questioned whether the NRC has done sufficient research on the subject, and asked Svinicki whether the commission has studied the corrosive impact of saltwater on casks.
In his letter, Markey noted that residents who live near Pilgrim found it “alarming” that the radioactive fuel could remain in Plymouth for years or even decades.
“The NRC has a responsibility to ensure that local communities and the American people are fully protected as nuclear plants shutter,” he wrote.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.