A nuclear dinosaur
What do you do with an aging nuclear power plant that is going to be closed anyway in a little more than a year?
As the shutdown date for the Pilgrim nuclear power plant approaches, the 45-year-old facility in Plymouth is coughing and wheezing all the way to the grave, and local officials and activists are worried the end – and afterlife – will be problematic.
Pilgrim’s most recent problems occurred during the recent storms when, first, the owners did not shut the plant down even though the ability to evacuate should a problem occur was compromised by the weather. Plant officials did shut the reactor down leading up to the third storm, with a problem in the heating system, but when they went to restart, found a transformer needed to be replaced before turning the switch back on. It was just the latest problem to haunt the one-time reliable facility.
On Sunday, inspectors discovered a problem with a critical safety mechanism that is used to stop fission from occurring in the nuclear reactor. Officials discovered clamps on nine pipes used in a hydraulic system to control a shutdown and prevent nuclear fission were incorrectly installed. For the uninitiated, fission is the precursor to a meltdown.
The Cape Cod Times, though, has been vigilant in reporting Pilgrim’s travails, running a deep, well-reported, and informative series in 2016 about Pilgrim and its nuclear cousins. Their more recent coverage includes some ominous details and warnings from the trove of experts the reporter, Christine Legere, has amassed.
“In an event such as an earthquake, the shaking could affect the pipes with the faulty clamps and result in a failure of the connected control rods to insert in Pilgrim’s reactor. Nuclear fission would then continue to occur,” the story says. “Operators might even have to resort to injecting a so-called ‘poison’ solution into the reactor to get nuclear fission to stop, according to Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The solution is made of a liquid boron. While plants are equipped with the backup pump system to ‘poison’ neutrons, it has yet to be used in the United States.”
For decades, nuclear power has been a mainstay of the country’s energy mix. It’s clean and, with some notable exceptions, such as Three Mile Island, had been problem-free. But as the nation’s inventory of aging reactors begin to meet their end, and with the frightening meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima plant after the tsunami, officials are trying to determine how best to handle the closures and storage of spent fuel issues.
California is near shutting down its last operating reactor. When Pilgrim shuts down in May, 2019, it will leave Seabrook in New Hampshire and the Millstone plant in Connecticut as the last two remaining nuclear plants in New England.
While some hail the demise of the nuclear age, others are concerned the shutdowns will leave the country short of its ability to meet future power needs. With the boom in oil and natural gas production, that’s not a problem many are concerned about right now.
But right now, the bigger problem is, should we worry about the safety of our dying fleet of reactors? That seems like a more immediate concern and one that should get more attention.
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