By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Citing the lack of a "viable evacuation plan," Gov. Deval Patrick has asked the nation's top nuclear regulator to order the decommissioning of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station if it does not comply with "all health, safety and environmental regulations."
Patrick's letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, dated March 17 and obtained by the News Service, fulfills a promise he recently made to protestors from Cape Cod, who filled the hallway outside his office March 10 urging him to call for the plant's closure.
Joyce McMahon, a spokeswoman for the nuclear plant's owner, said Patrick's request "is no more than a request for the NRC to fulfill the role it has at every plant every day. It does not appear that he is calling for anything above and beyond to be done at Pilgrim."
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the News Service that any violations at Pilgrim "have not risen above very low safety significance in recent years."
All 15 Cape Cod towns have officially called for the closure of the nuclear plant, and Patrick said he shares their concerns.
"The potential impact of a major event at the plant is disquieting," wrote Patrick, who opposed the NRC's 2012 decision to relicense the roughly 40-year-old plant for another 20 years of operation. Patrick wrote, "The unique geographical relationship between Plymouth and the communities comprising Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts could put those residents at serious risk should there be an accident."
"In the highly unlikely event of a large evacuation it would be done in an orderly fashion to ensure the safety of the public," McMahon said.
Based on downgrades in Pilgrim's safety rating to a "Degraded Cornerstone" level, Sheehan said NRC will provide additional oversight through 2014 and maybe beyond.
McMahon said, "The layers upon layers of redundant safety systems at Pilgrim are among the many reasons why the safety of Pilgrim remains at a high level" and said the plant is working on improving its safety systems after recent downgrades.
In November 2013, the NRC downgraded Pilgrim's rating because of three unplanned shutdowns - including two deemed "complicated," according to McMahon, who said the plant was downgraded further in February because of a fourth unplanned shutdown, or scram, in the fourth quarter of 2013. She said two of the four scrams were the "result of electric transmission line problems external to Pilgrim."
"Operating Pilgrim at the highest levels of safety and reliability is our top priority," McMahon said in an emailed response to questions. "We have conducted rigorous reviews of the plant shutdowns to identify common causes and required improvements. Our action-plan is broad-based and addresses plant equipment, processes and organizational improvement initiatives."
Sen. Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat who believes the plant is unsafe and wants it closed, said the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency's plan for a Pilgrim disaster would require Cape Codders, who live just south of the plant, to wait for people in the Plymouth area to evacuate first.
"MEMA basically is telling people in the state that it's a shelter-in-place until those within 10 miles have evacuated, and then people on the Cape can start moving off. I have serious concerns about that for the people that I represent down on the Cape," Wolf told reporters earlier in the month. Wolf also has environmental concerns about the nuclear plant, which uses water from the Cape Cod Bay to cool it.
McMahon said emergency plans developed with federal and state officials vary depending on the scenario.
"These extensive plans include hundreds of possible traffic and weather scenarios and they are evaluated and reevaluated on an ongoing basis," McMahon said.