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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Despite a history of problems, regulators grant Millstone nuclear plant license revisions

Issues remain about nuclear waste storage, plant reliability, safety, environmental impact and security
By Will Collette

Image result for fukushima nuclear disasterI have been cutting back on articles about the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, CT. 

Even though Charlestown is only 20 miles downwind from the troubled facility, well within the danger zone, and the plant has been rife with problems, it seems as though Charlestown town government could care less.

Even though the Town Council, comprised entirely of members of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party), frequently adopts resolutions and sends letters about matters having little or no bearing on Charlestown, Millstone seems to be totally off their radar. 

Out of sight, out of mind, even though, as the wind blows, it’s practically in our backyard.

Let’s review the issues. Millstone is our local nuke. If there’s an accident at the plant, the prevailing winds will carry any released radiation right to us.

Any of a number of problems could cause an accident – failure of the reactor cooling system (and they’ve had recurring problems with their cooling system), a fire at the radioactive waste storage site where millions of pounds of high-level wastes are stored on-site for lack of any other place to put them, or a terrorist attack.

It took Millstone years after the 9/11 attacks to hold its first emergency drill, though apparently they are starting to catch up, having just recently won praise from FEMA for its August 16 six-hour emergency drill.

That contrasts with last May when a majority of Millstone’s security guards voted “no confidence” in Millstone management or contractors when it comes to the safety and security of the plant.

Incidentally, FEMA is asking for public comments on Millstone’s emergency preparations. Written comments on the exercise can be sent to: FEMA, Region 1; Technological Hazards Branch; 99 High St., 5th Floor; Boston, MA 02110.
Image result for Millstone & charlestown
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission pegs the danger zone at only 10 miles, but...

Image result for fukushima radiation map
Aerial measurements by the US and Japanese after the Fukushima meltdown and waste pile explosion showed dangerous radiation levels as far as 50 kilometers (31.07 miles) away
Doing one 6-hour nuclear emergency drill properly in no way makes up for the numerous other problems at the Millstone site, largely aided and abetted by federal reguators.

For example, on August 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a license amendment for Millstone allowing it to alter the way it monitors problems in energy transmission to and from the plant.

This is a sensitive issue since any loss of power to the plant could cause a shut-down of the coolant pumping system which is the primary way to prevent a reactor meltdown or loss of coolant water in the ponds that prevent spent fuel rods from catching fire.

But something else happened that same day. Here’s how the New London Day described it:
Also Thursday, in an unrelated development, operators at Millstone Unit 2 manually shut down the reactor about 9:30 a.m. Thursday. The plant remained offline as of 4:30 p.m. Thursday. [NRC spokesman Neil] Sheehan said the shutdown was done in response to degraded condenser vacuum levels. The condensers, which cool steam generated by the reactor after the steam has flowed through the turbine to produce electricity, are used to maximize plant efficiency under certain conditions. The problem with condenser vacuum conditions apparently was caused by the loss of two circulating-water pumps for the plant, Sheehan said. The pumps are used to draw water from Long Island Sound for cooling the plant, including the functions of the condenser, he said.
So Millstone once again has to SCRAMM its reactors because of a glitch in the critical water-pumping cooling system. But that doesn’t stop the pussycat regulator, the NRC, from giving Millstone what it wants.

Image result for radioactive waste storage
How would you like to be THAT guy?
Aside from the hinky cooling system, the other big concern at Millstone is the on-site storage of its high-level waste.

Right about now, 75 tons of this waste in the form of spent fuel rods will be removed from cooling ponds where they have sat for thirty years (!!!) and will be placed in concrete and metal casks that will also sit on the plant grounds for an indefinite period of time.

Soon after that, Millstone plans to take another 75 tons out of water storage, and there will be more to come. Both the National Academy of Science and the Union of Concerned Scientists issued reports calling for swifter removal of radioactive waste from water and placement into containers.

While cask storage of this waste is far safer than allowing the fuel rods to sit in water, I worry about accidents that could occur during the transfer. After all, some of those rods have been sitting in those ponds since the 1980s which might affect their structural integrity.

But there’s yet another problem that has surfaced as Vermont grapples with the post-closure headaches at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, namely what to do with all that radioactive water.

Vermont managed to get approval to ship off their nuclear fuel rods to one of America’s old Manhattan Project nuclear bomb sites in Tennessee.

But they are still left with many tons of irradiated piping and plumbing. And over a million gallons of radioactive water. Entergy, the plant’s operator, hopes to ship that radioactive water somewhere else – to Idaho, maybe or perhaps Tennessee might take the water too.

I haven’t seen any numbers on the volume of water in Millstone’s cooling ponds but you can be pretty sure that
  1. There’s a lot of it, 
  2. Having held fuel rods for over 30 years, it’s pretty “hot” stuff and 
  3. There’s no current plan for what to do with it, if the example of Vermont Yankee tells us anything.
A major part of the problem is that many of the agencies of government who are supposed to protect us by putting public health ahead of corporate profit, seem to be far more concerned about protecting Millstone’s ability to keep generating electricity.

That’s true at the state level. And for an example of how it works at the federal level, we saw a great one last March.

That was when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made their decision to cancel a long-term cancer risk study by the National Academy of Sciences on inhabitants of neighbors nearby nuclear power plants, including Millstone.

I am guessing they were advised to do so by their lawyers, as lawyers try to follow the ironclad rule of not asking any questions unless you already know the answer – and are comfortable with that answer.

The NRC’s story for why it cancelled the study is that the $8 million (that’s million NOT billion) was prohibitive even though they have already spent $1.5 million for the preliminary phase.

The local citizens’ advisory panel that oversees Millstone expressed its disappointment with the decision. So should down-winder Charlestown residents.

Maybe I should talk about how an accident might affect  Quonochontaug property values or how the flash from a melt-down or waste pile explosion would violate Dark Skies Ordinance to get the CCA Steering Committee off its collective butt. Maybe.