Having lived for 35 years downwind of the Indian Point (IP) nuclear station on the shores of the Hudson River in New York, and teaching physical science at a college nearby, our proximity to Entergy’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth has alarmed me, especially since the Fukushima catastrophe three years ago. Pilgrim is a design twin and the same age (40-plus years) as the four Fukushima reactors, three of which melted down in March 2011.

As president of the environmental organization (Hudson) Riverkeeper, I was involved closely for many years with the many technical, seismic, environmental and public safety issues constantly posed by the IP station, which should never have been built where it is. There is a certain irony now as I find myself living downwind of another old nuclear power station with so many similar hazards as IP (also owned by Entergy).

IP is rated number one nationwide for seismic hazard, and Pilgrim is number two. Both are subject to storm surges and sea level rise. Both have been or are on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s watch list of stations with hazardous conditions needing oversight and remediation. Both have unrealistic, perhaps even laughable (if it weren’t so serious) evacuation plans, and both threaten major population areas: IP the 18 million people in the New York city metro area, and Pilgrim the several millions around Boston, including the captive Cape and Islands. The primary problem with Pilgrim is one of public safety. No other consideration is more important, although the NRC doesn’t see it that way.

The comments reported in last week’s Gazette by Kurt Schwartz, Emergency Management Director for the commonwealth, regarding potential evacuation scenarios from the Cape and Islands are quite alarming, although I’m sure he didn’t intend them to be. What everyone should realize is that there is no evacuation plan for the Cape and Islands in the event of a major release of radiation from the Pilgrim plant. The NRC only requires immediate evacuation for an area within a 10-mile radius from a plant. Of course severe contamination beyond 10 miles is a reality, as both Chernobyl and now Fukushima have demonstrated.

The Cape and Islands are beyond the 10-mile evacuation zone, but within the 50-mile relocation zone, for which there is little planning. The Steamship Authority has no plan. Dukes County has none. Neither does the commonwealth, which according to Mr. Schwartz does not even foresee a circumstance for an emergency evacuation of the Cape, and presumably the Islands, due to a release from Pilgrim. “Shelter in place,” we are told, and the government will take care of everything by-and-by. Think Katrina.

A similar problem existed on Long Island 25 years ago. It became apparent that heavily populated Long Island could not be evacuated in the aftermath of a major accident at the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, under construction on Long Island Sound at that time. Gov. Mario Cuomo fought successfully to convert the plant, before it went critical, from a nuclear to a fossil fuel station in order not to leave the dense Long Island population vulnerable to an accident. However, in 2014, though the Cape and our Island are particularly vulnerable, we are being told not to worry, stay put, everything will be under control. Is that an acceptable response to the obvious risk? Wasn’t New York’s response to Shoreham (remove the nuclear threat) more sensible?

The dynamics of dispersion of a radiation plume are not simple. How far the radiation goes, and where it eventually lands depends heavily on the wind direction and speed, as well as the state of the atmosphere (low pressure, high pressure, precipitation, etc.). All are highly variable, and only predictable to a degree. The duration of the radiation release is another major factor also not predictable. Fukushima continues to release radiation more than three years after the explosive meltdowns. Fifty miles away is no insurance policy. Plans have been made to evacuate Tokyo, over 100 miles from Fukushima, and still may have to be implemented.

Therefore our concerns should not only be short term, immediately after the release, but long term. Very long term. Sheltering in place, briefly, may be a reasonable immediate response to a nuclear accident under some circumstances, but the deposition from a radioactive plume causes long-term consequences wherever it falls. Some of the radioactive isotopes released during a serious accident have half-lives around 30 years, which means it takes about three centuries for them to decay to a background level. Meanwhile, they are in the environment, in the ground, in the air, in the streams, in the plants and wildlife. These are the ones that come up through the food chain, taken into our muscles (cesium) and bones (strontium), and may make human habitation in the contaminated zone extremely dangerous, if not impossible.

So, I for one, am not comforted by Mr. Schwartz’s reported comment that the worst that could happen is some residents might have to relocate. That is the sort of honeyed, obfuscatory language always used by the nuclear industry, nuclear plant owners, the NRC and obviously emergency managers, to minimize and cover up the consequences of a major nuclear release. Left unsaid is, relocation yes, but you can’t go back! The more appropriate phrase is: “You’ll have to abandon your home and property permanently.” That would of course, besides being true, be considered alarmist. And we should be alarmed. It can happen here, and we shouldn’t have to live with the thought that it could. That is an unacceptable risk.

The prospect of the Cape and Islands being uninhabitable for centuries should get our undivided attention. And no insurance company will compensate a homeowner or property owner for the loss of property under those circumstances. Read your homeowner’s policy. A nuclear accident lets all insurance companies off the hook. Backup government insurance, under the Price-Anderson Act, is woefully inadequate. We have already seen twice now how downwind areas well beyond 10 miles have to be permanently abandoned. No habitation allowed. It happened at Chernobyl after the 1986 explosion there, and now at Fukushima.

Arnie Gundersen, a retired nuclear engineer turned public safety advocate, of Fairewinds (Fairewinds.com), sums it up beautifully: “It’s possible to have 40 good years,” he says, “and then one very bad day,” of the old nuclear power plants now routinely being given 20-year license extensions by the NRC. Let’s not forget that that one very bad day lasts for hundreds of years.

Richard Knabel lives in West Tisbury.