The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff was in Plymouth this month for their annual review of the problem-plagued Pilgrim nuclear reactor. At the public meeting, NRC inspectors again assessed Pilgrim as one of the worst nuclear reactors in the country. Pilgrim is still one step from federally mandated shut down even after three years of increased federal oversight. Region 1 Administrator David Lew, when asked if a severe accident like Fukushima could happen here in Plymouth, admitted, “Yes.” Yet the NRC allows Pilgrim to operate on a dangerous tightrope between the NRC’s own flawed probability risk analysis and the reality of possibility for a severe accident to occur.
The announcement a day later by Entergy that it would refuel and operate Pilgrim until 2019 suggests Entergy is fully confident that the NRC will protect the plant from shutdown despite the dangers it poses. Then the following day, the NRC announced budget cuts with reductions in oversight and reporting. Reducing regulatory action at a time of increased problems is playing Russian Roulette with our lives.
Losing money in the deregulated market and beholden to the energy contract through 2019 with the New England Independent Systems Operators (ISO), Entergy has no financial choice but to continue to operate or face stiff fines for pulling out of their contract without replacement power. The bottom line for Entergy is, as always, money.
Pilgrim closing in 2019 is not comforting. With a long litany of NRC-documented violations at the “repetitively degrading” nuclear reactor, we are entering an even more dangerous time. Waiting three more years is not a viable option. Poor financial performance as Pilgrim loses $40 million a year coupled with putting off maintenance, repairs and safety protocols only increases the risks.
Serious safety concerns remain. Dr. Charles Perrow, professor emeritus at Yale University, has explored complex technological systems and industrial disasters, particularly at nuclear power reactors. He warns that minor failures compounded with human error can cascade into devastating accidents. He expounds the ‘Normal Accident Theory’ which concludes that “some complex systems with catastrophic potential are just too dangerous to exist because they cannot be made safe, regardless of human effort.” Accidents, he explains, result from a combination of the “unexpected, incomprehensible, uncontrollable, and unavoidable.” A cascading event of equipment failures and human errors mix to make severe accidents not only part of the system but more likely to happen. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima operators were all unprepared for the complexities of multiple failures. Accidents will happen because of the technology, not in spite of it.
The Union of Concerned Scientists concurs with this position. USC Senior Writer Elliot Negin, commenting on the Fukushima disaster, has strongly warned, “It will only be a matter of time before a similar event happens in the United States.”
Assurances of public safety through the regulatory process are revealed as a fatal farce. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) addressed the NRC commissioners for their lack of attention to serious public safety issues in her home state. She declared, “This is not hyperbole but life and death for my people.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not just failing the people in Massachusetts but the entire nation.
So why wait until another ‘near miss’? Pilgrim should be closed immediately.
The real possibility of failed safety systems coupled with human error is an acknowledged fatal flaw of nuclear technology that can lead to catastrophic consequences. High risk technologies like nuclear power, as Dr. Perrow predicts, have a real potential to produce tragic events like Fukushima. Ignoring the multiple warnings of Pilgrim dangers and Entergy’s ongoing neglect, combined with the NRC mission to prop up the failing Pilgrim reactor until 2019, is a phenomenal failure of government.
Neither NRC rules, regulations, nor oversight will save us from disaster. We have a civic obligation to be outraged.
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