Officials at the company that owns Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station revealed plans Thursday to move the plant’s nuclear waste to higher ground in the coming years.
The decision, which residents and local activists have long urged, seeks to protect the radioactive fuel against the threat of rising seas.
Entergy Corp. currently has 17 massive steel-reinforced concrete cylinders filled with the radioactive waste on a concrete pad located about 25 feet above Plymouth Bay and little more than 200 feet from the shoreline.
The new plan, which officials said would be completed by 2022, would move those containers, known as dry casks, to a new pad on an existing parking lot that is about 75 feet above mean sea level and 700 feet from the shore.
Officials expect to store a total of 61 casks on the new pad. The casks are 18 feet tall, weigh 360,000 pounds, and emit small amounts of radiation.
“Our next step will be to apply for the required permits and commence construction before the plant ceases operation,” said Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for Pilgrim.
The plant is scheduled to shut down operations by next June.
In August, Entergy said it intends to sell Pilgrim to Holtec International, a New Jersey company that has promised to decommission the site in eight years. Holtec officials said they expect it will take about three years to remove the spent nuclear fuel from Pilgrim and store it in dry casks.
Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, who in April called on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure that the spent fuel is protected from rising seas, said Thursday that the agency needed to “recognize the threat climate change poses to nuclear power plants across the country.”
“I have long called for Pilgrim to abandon its dangerous plan to keep nuclear waste directly next to seas rising as a result of climate change, and this decision reflects the reality of our times,” Markey said in a statement.
Plymouth residents said they supported the company’s decision to move the waste to higher ground but hoped the material wouldn’t remain there for long.
“While I commend Entergy for this decision, I believe they really had no choice because the engineering, environmental, and decommissioning facts dictated this location,” said Sean Mullin, a Plymouth resident who serves as co-chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, which was created by the state.
Mullin said he hopes the federal government lives up to its promise to move the waste out of Plymouth as soon as possible.
“While I am pleased with Entergy’s decision and announcement, Plymouth will still be host to a nuclear waste site for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We must continue to work to force the federal government to live up to its contract and responsibilities.”
Entergy officials said they chose the new location, which is just 350 feet from the closest public road, after considering two other sites on the Pilgrim property. The company plans to implement a range of security improvements to protect the casks, O’Brien said. He declined to say more about the protective measures.
“All three sites were evaluated under nine regulatory and technical requirements, with the chosen location in the upper parking coming out more favorable,” O’Brien said.
Entergy also tested the location to determine whether it can accommodate a specialized road to handle the massive fuel casks.
At the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which began the decommissioning process several years ago, it cost $143 million to fill and move the remaining casks to a new storage site.
But advocates who have long raised concerns about the plant urged Entergy to adopt a range of safety measures, such as installing monitors on the casks to identify cracks; storing special casings on site to prevent the release of radiation in the event of a crack; and storing the casks in a building or below ground to make it harder for a terrorist to attack them and to reduce corrosion from the salty air.
“We will continue to encourage greater protection from the salt air environment as well as other precautions,” said Pine duBois, executive director of the Jones River Watershed Association in Kingston, which is about eight miles from Pilgrim.
“But personally, I’m relieved that this move will buy us all some time to figure out how to handle this enormously complex and hazardous problem.”