A movement to close the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is gaining ground on Martha’s Vineyard, where some Islanders have begun to voice concerns about their safety in the event of an emergency.
The Island, like much of the commonwealth, stands in the shadow of the state’s only nuclear plant.
A public forum is planned for Monday at 7 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven; the event is titled Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station: Could Fukushima Happen Here?
Pilgrim provides 15 per cent of the electricity for southeastern Massachusetts, according to a 2014 report by ISO New England, the region’s electric grid operator.
This past spring, Island voters expressed overwhelming support for the decommissioning of the plant at their annual town meetings and at the ballot box. Nonbinding resolutions urging Gov. Deval Patrick to press for closure of the Plymouth plant were supported by most towns. In addition, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Dukes County Commission signed letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking for the decommissioning of Pilgrim.
“Public safety, particularly that of Cape and Islands residents, cannot be assured,” the resolutions read in part.
Last year, all 15 Cape towns passed similar resolutions, asking for the decommissioning of the power plant.
In the event of an emergency at Pilgrim, releases from the plant could potentially involve the inhalation and ingestion of radioactive material. State and federal legislators have also expressed concerns about the plant’s safety, and have asked the NRC to monitor the plant closely.
The primary concern for the Cape and Islands has been the lack of an evacuation plan in the event of a nuclear emergency. While the state has a plan in place to evacuate those living within a 10-mile radius of the plant, the Cape and Islands are not included in that region.
“Basically, we on the Cape and Islands would be sheltering in place and then slowly relocated, which makes us sitting ducks for ingesting any radioactive plume that should be released,” said Ann Rosenkranz of West Tisbury.
But emergency management officials say firmly that there is no imminent risk to the Cape and Islands from inhaled radiation in the event of an accident at the plant. The Vineyard sits roughly 40 to 50 miles away from the plant.
“The Vineyard potentially is at risk from a release, but it is not due to an imminent urgent inhalation that would require an emergency evacuation,” said Kurt Schwartz, director of emergency management for Massachusetts. “There is not a circumstance in which the state would call for an evacuation of the Cape due to the release from Pilgrim,” Mr. Schwartz said.
Emergency planning zones are determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission which work in tandem to ensure safety around such plants.
The 10-mile radius is based on scientific research by the federal agencies. “The science indicates that when radioactive particles are released into the atmosphere, by the time they travel 10 miles, their level of radioactivity has dropped to a level to where they don’t present an imminent health risk,” Mr. Schwartz said.
Strong winds and precipitation further reduce the amount of radioactive particles in the air in a given area, he said.
Mr. Schwartz, a longtime Vineyard homeowner, said the Island could be at risk for possible long-term exposure to radioactive materials.
“If you ingest the materials over time there is a substantial health risk, but it is something that happens over a prolonged period of time,” he said.
But he said when it comes to an emergency evacuation plan, the Vineyard does not need to worry. In the event of an emergency, within the first 24 hours, state and federal officials would come to the Island and map the regions that have high radioactivity. Depending on what they find, some residents might have to relocate.
“The Vineyard issue is not needing an emergency evacuation plan — what the Vineyard might experience in the aftermath of a significant emergency would be a normal Steamship relocation,” Mr. Schwartz said. “We would be able to manage that type of relocation.”
Despite communicating this position clearly in the public arena, Mr. Schwartz said his comments have been taken out of context by advocacy groups working to decommission the plant.
“I have in the past said that the Cape potentially is in harm’s way if there is a release from Pilgrim. The Cape is at risk of this longer-term ingestion-related health issue, but I have also clearly said that the people on the Cape are not at immediate risk of inhalation illnesses,” the director said.
He said in any emergency, the state is immediately in contact with local emergency management personnel, including Charles Cotnoir, emergency manager for Dukes County. “The Vineyard would be getting very clear guidance from us about what is going on and what might be required,” Mr. Schwartz said.
Mr. Cotnoir has developed a detailed plan for nuclear power plant emergencies, and has secured radiation testing devices for use on county property. He is also working with volunteer Zach Niemi to develop a GIS mapping program to track radiation readings around the Island.
“It’s always good for people to be ready for a possible natural or man-made disaster,” Mr. Cotnoir said this week. His plan is specific to Dukes County property and its employees. Island boards of health now have supplies of potassium iodide — a drug used to protect the thyroid gland from radiation — available for public distribution.
Three Cape Cod activists will join the panel on Monday, including Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch, Diane Turco of Cape Downwinders and Karen Vale of Cape Cod Bay Watch.
Cape and Islands state Sen. Dan Wolf, who has called for closing the plant, will also speak Monday.
A group called 350 Martha’s Vineyard Island, a local organization founded in early 2013 to address climate change, has also been vocal on the issue.
Though not directly related to climate change, founder Mas Kimball said sea level rise and sea temperature rise could imperil the plant in the event of a storm. The warming of bay waters could also compromise the necessary cooling of fuel rods, he said.
“Climate change is impacting the plant,” said Ann Rosenkranz. “Rising seas, warming waters, the severity and frequency of the storms, all of those things are really imperiling what is not a safe situation to begin with and making it even more dangerous.”
Christina Miller, an Edgartown resident, has been rigorously tracking the plant since it was first built.
Her family owned a summer home in Manomet, just three miles from the power plant.
An avid environmentalist, Mrs. Miller took an interest in the plant from the very beginning, clipping nearly every article printed on the topic in regional and local press.
The thick binders that hold these clippings present a nearly complete history of the state’s only nuclear power plant, she said. Her binders have been circulated widely around the Cape by those looking to educate themselves about the plant.
Now, it’s time for Islanders to inform themselves as well, she said.
“I think people have to come to the realization that we are as vulnerable as all the communities on the Cape,” Mrs. Miller said.
Articles filed in her binder more recently show that in the wake of Fukushima, more attention has been paid in the press.
Mr. Schwartz acknowledged the heightened awareness. “Fukushima reminds us that anything is possible,” he said. “When we think about Pilgrim, I think it is important to do worst-case scenario planning, and we planned for that extremely low probability, high impact event.”
The Pilgrim Power Plant was built in 1972 and operated by Boston Edison Company until l999. At that point, the current owner, Entergy, purchased the station.
Despite voices calling for decommissioning, the Pilgrim Plant was granted a license renewal in 2012 for 20 more years.
This year, the NRC determined that the plant required more scrutiny as a result of unplanned shutdowns that took place last year.
Organizers of the Monday forum say they hope it will continue a dialogue on the Island about the safety and environmental risks involved with the Pilgrim plant.
“It is about our community trying to figure out if we have a reasonable plan,” said Megan Ottens-Sargent, who owns the Gay Head Gallery in Aquinnah. This weekend she will open a new show featuring haunting black and white photographs of nuclear testing facilities. Called Landscape of the Cold War, the show aims to portray the impact that nuclear technology can have on landscape and the culture of a place.
Though he is unable to attend the Monday forum, Mr. Schwartz said he hopes a balanced dialogue will take place. “There are a lot of groups out there that have an agenda,” he said. “If you look across the Cape, there has been a lot of bad information that has been disseminated that is really leading people to have an erroneous understanding of the risks. People need to understand the real risk, and there are real risks.”