PILGRIM: We Have a Problem
PLYMOUTH, MASS. – The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station has a leak.
Safety and PR officials at Entergy, the Louisiana-based owner of the Pilgrim nuke plant at Plymouth, Mass., are scrambling to find the source of a radioactive tritium leak that, after new monitoring wells were dug in May, flared to unacceptable during levels July and continues to show evidence of a leak.
Published reports and sources tapped by Northampton Media reveal that state public health officials are holding urgent meetings to deal with the Pilgrim’s tritium leak, and that Pilgrim plant officials meet first thing every morning to deal with the issue.
While the Pilgrim leak, documented in late spring, amounts to far less of the radioactive material than was found at Vermont Yankee last year, the fact that the reactor is located next to Cape Cod Bay and is less than 40 miles from Boston, and 20 miles as the seagull flies from Provincetown, is cause for concern.
The radioactive element tritium is a byproduct of nuclear plants, and is measured in picocuries per liter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “acceptable level” for tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter, many times higher than the level considered safe by some states (including California, which uses 400 picocuries) and some countries (Canada’s standard is 540 picocuries). [For views on the properties and dangers of tritium, see web pages at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.]
Pilgrim’s radiation leak comes at an awkward time for Entergy, since the Pilgrim plant is nearing the end of a 20-year relicensing application for the 38-year-old nuclear power plant — especially after what happened at the Entergy’s other nuclear plant in the region, Vermont Yankee.
Pilgrim and Its Sister Nuke, Vermont Yankee
Located in Vernon, Vt., Vermont Yankee’s operating license expires in a year and a half, but in February the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 against allowing the Public Service Board to issue a Certificate of Public Good, required for Entergy to operate the plant for an additional 20 years past March 2012.
That turn of events came after dangerous tritium levels were found in groundwater last fall. Leaky underground pipes, like those suspected at Pilgrim, were blamed for tritium levels that were many times higher than federal limits. Although Entergy has said it has found, fixed and remediated the Vermont Yankee’s radioactive leak, relicensing is no sure thing.
In a report issued last week, the Vermont Department of Health detailed its investigation so far into the tritium leaks, and estimates that about 245,000 gallons of “tritium-contaminated groundwater” has been pumped from the plant site. The agency says the water contains tritium concentrations in the range of about 76,000 picocuries per liter. The report, however, documents that some monitoring wells there are detecting tritium levels as high as 370,000 picocuries.
Meanwhile, Entergy is fighting an investigation by the Vermont Public Safety Board (PSB) into the leaks, stating in a filing with the board that it has no jurisdiction “about the release of rsdionuclides,” which it says are the sole purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to an Aug. 28 article in the Rutland Herald. Meanwhile, the article says, the Conservation Law Foundation and the New England Coalition have petitioned the PSB to shut down Vermont Yankee until the tritium leak issue is resolved for good.
At Pilgrim this May, a new groundwater monitoring well on the ocean side of the plant immediately began showing tritium levels 5-10 times higher than the other 11 test wells. And after that initial reading of 5,810 picocuries per liter, the well – dubbed MW-205 – continued to reveal rising tritium levels.
On July 7, the numbers at MW-205 peaked at 25,552 picocuries, higher than even the EPA’s suspect standard of 20,000. By Aug. 9, the state Department of Public Health’s latest published readings, tritium levels had dropped to a still-alarming level of over 12,000 picocuries. (To view a state spreadsheet showing all Pilgrim monitoring-well readings since 2007, click here.)
Amazingly, groundwater monitoring at the Pilgrim plant was done voluntarily, and only started in 2007 when six test wells were dug; testing, though, was sketchy at best until April 2008. Critics of the plant’s monitoring, including the citizens group Pilgrim Watch, have called for the installation of many more wells to monitor ground water.
Samples taken by Entergy are separately analyzed by the company and by the Massachusetts Environmental Radiation Laboratory.
The Pilgrim plant is located on the edge of Cape Cod Bay, south of Boston. According to Entergy and Asbestos.com, the plant covers 1,600 acres, uses a General Electric boiling water reactor and stores spent fuel rods on-site; it was built by the Bechtel Corporation, opened in 1972, and was originally run by Boston Edison. Its maximum operating power capacity is about 688 megawatts.
Vermont Yankee, which also opened in 1972 with a General Electric boiling water reactor, was designed by Ebasco and has an operating capacity of about 610 megawatts, according to the Entergy and Asbestos.com websites. The plant sits on a 125-acre site along the west bank of the Connecticut River. In 2002, Entergy Nuclear Northeast of White Plains, N.Y. bought the plant from a consortium of power company owners.
Pilgrim’s relicensing rests in the hands of the Atomic Safety Licensing Board.
An NRC Incident Report, and a Handful of News Stories
After high levels of tritium were discovered at Pilgrim, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was notified. The federal agency issued an incident report, which caught the attention of some journalists in Plymouth and Boston, but the news stories were generally ignored by other media sources in the region. Curiously, even the NRC’s own “Event Notification Report,” dated July 21, 2010, failed to document the peak levels of 25,000 picocuries, citing instead a level of 11,072 picocuries sampled a month earlier.
No other incident reports could be found on a recent search of the NRC web site.
Some news stories, like one found July 12 on DigitalJounal.com, gave brief, one-time reports citing much lower tritium-level readings and quoting only plant spokesman David Tarantino, who said public health and safety were not impacted “in any way.” There was no follow-up.
The Boston Globe ran a few stories which, while not exactly hard-hitting, did reveal some startling items. One, in a July 14 Globe story, was a statement by plant flack Tarantino, who claimed the high tritium levels were due to “washout” from water vapor returning to the ground as rain. The same article quoted Ralph Anderson, a top official for The Nuclear Energy Institute, trade-group organization for the nuclear industry, as saying the discovery of tritium showed the safety systems in place worked just fine.
Some of the best and most dogged reporting on Pilgrim’s tritium leak has come from the GateHouse News Service (picked up largely by WickedLocal.com), which generated more stories and gave a more balanced assessment of the situation. One example is a GateHouse story featured on Wicked Local’s July 9 edition, even though it quoted lower levels of tritium logged in several weeks before the peak reading (which occurred on July 7).
GateHouse also generated an Aug. 30 story on Pilgrim Watch’s continuing legal challenge to Entergy’s relicensing application for the Pilgrim nuke. The advocacy group had hoped to disqualify one of three judges on the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board whom it considered too familiar with Entergy; but a presidential commission that oversees the NRC ruled that Judge Paul Abramson’s familiarity with computer models Entergy uses to predict nuclear plant accident scenarios was insufficient to disqualify him.
And a July 21 GateHouse story revealed that officials at the Pilgrim plant are meeting on the tritium leak first thing every morning at 8 a.m. The story also said that, according to David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Pilgrim’s problem just enforces the need for more consistent testing of all the country’s nuke plants.”
PR Blackout, a Petition, and Political Pressure
Visitors to the Pilgrim plant’s website, however, will have no clue that anything is amiss at Pilgrim.
“Pilgrim Station has an impeccable safety record,” the home page reads under a headline entitled “Safe, Secure, Vital.” “We take great pride in our ability to maintain a critical source of power safely and securely,” the Pilgrim website reads. “We make significant operational improvements on an ongoing basis to help ensure the safety and performance of our facility.”
Dissatisfied with the official oversight of Pilgrim, Pilgrim Watch has stepped into the breach on a number of fronts. While continuing its opposition to Pilgrim’s relicensing, the group last month filed a petition asking the NRC to order Entergy to immediately perform an updated hydrological assessment of the area under and around the Pilgrim plant.
“This is necessary,” the Pilgrim Watch petition reads, “to provide reasonable assurance that the leaks are not occurring so that piping and other buried components are able to perform their intended safety function (and) for Entergy to [be] in compliance with the Industry Ground Water Protection Initiative at Pilgrim Station that they agreed to follow. . ..”
Dated Aug. 13, the petition was submitted by Pilgrim Watch Director Mary Lampert and sent to R. William Borchardt, the NRC’s executive director of operations in Washington, D.C.
The petition includes testimony on groundwater monitoring by Dr. David Ahlfeld, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst engineering professor who heads the university’s Groundwater Management Group and is also an expert working with Pilgrim Watch. Lampert cites Ahlfeld’s analysis that Pilgrim’s 12 monitoring wells may have been dug in the wrong spots. The monitoring-well placement, she writes, were fixed using a 1967 hydrology study, conducted long before the power plant was built. “No subsurface investigations have been performed for over 40 years, as they clearly should have been,” Lampert concluded.
Massachusetts’ Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey have also gotten into the act this year, asking the NRC to get tough on radioactive leaks; Patrick called for the NRC to suspend relicensing of both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim until the leak issues are resolved.
In Patrick’s Feb. 9, 2010 letter to NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko and other commissioners, he asked the NRC to order “extensive testing for leaks of tritium and other radioactive substances at both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim” and to halt “any further consideration of the of the relicensing of both plants until the leak issues are resolved.”
In his position as chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and The Environment Subcommittee, Markey wrote NRC Chairman Jaczko on July 15 this year, after reading a Globe report on Pilgrim’s tritium leak.
“Sadly, this appears to be just another in a long line of failures of buried piping systems and our nation’s nuclear plants,” Markey wrote. “This lack of a serious and comprehensive (NRC) inspection regime for buried piping systems has long been a concern of mine.. . .The current inspection regime for buried pipes – physical inspections conducted only in those rare instances when pipes are dug out for other purposes – is incapable of ensuring the integrity of decades-old piping systems.. . .
“Other industries have figured out how to inspect their buried pipes in a proactive and comprehensive fashion,” Markey concluded. “How many more failures does the nuclear industry and the NRC need before they admit that aging buried systems need additional attention?”
[Note: In February 2010, the independently produced media program "Living on Earth" interviewed Pilgrim plant spokesman David Tarantino and Pilgrim Watch's Mary Lampert at the plant site. A transcript of the program and an audio link are available by clicking here.]