(Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 06--FIRST OF TWO PARTS
PLYMOUTH -- Housed deep inside a series of buildings like a giant Russian nesting doll, the true shape of the reactor at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is difficult to guess from outside the facility's barbed wire and cement security barriers.
The building that envelops the reactor's so-called secondary containment area is rectangular. From inside the ground floor, a slight curve of concrete near the ceiling gives the only hint of the lightbulb-like form of the plant's primary containment area and no indication of the silo-shaped reactor nestled deep behind 5 to 6 feet of concrete and nearly 3 inches of steel.
Several stories up on top of the reactor in a large space devoid of other activity during a recent tour, it is harder still to imagine the neutrons battering uranium pellets and producing tiny packets of energy in the reactor 75 feet below.
To one side, a small pool of blue water holds all the fuel ever used at the plant in more than 3,000 12-foot-tall rods. The pool was designed to hold 880 spent fuel rods when Pilgrim first came online 40 years ago.
Overhead is a simple roof.
Just how vulnerable the plant is to attack or disaster is among many issues Pilgrim's opponents have seized on in efforts to derail the six-year quest by the plant's owner, Entergy Nuclear, to secure a license to operate the reactor for another 20 years.
Staff members at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the country's 104 nuclear power plants, have asked the commission for a positive decision on the license by Tuesday. The original license doesn't expire until June 8, and the plant can continue to operate until the NRC makes a final decision.
On Friday, 380 union workers at the plant voted to authorize a strike over health benefits and working conditions, throwing another wrinkle into Entergy's efforts to prove Pilgrim is safe.
Entergy officials say the dangers of an event that could damage the spent fuel or the reactor, impacts from the plant's operations on Cape Cod Bay and concerns about a disaster like the one that occurred last year at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan are overstated.
Local economic benefits from the plant and its ability to produce large amounts of energy without greenhouse gas emissions outweigh the slight risk from the plant's operation, they say.
The request for a decision on the license by NRC staff members is hardly out of the blue, said Jack Alexander, manager of government relations for Entergy.
"It's something we were looking for 4 1/2 years ago," he said.
Alexander and the plant's licensing manager, Joseph Lynch, dismissed accusations that the plant has a major impact on Cape Cod Bay.
A five-year study, for example, showed no significant impact on winter flounder from the plant taking in water to cool the reactor, Lynch said. Entergy performs annual assessments to study the number of fish being trapped against intake screens, he said.
"To my knowledge we have never taken in a sturgeon," Alexander said. "We do occasionally take in herring but not enough where we believe we are having an impact."
Alexander said holding up the plant's license because herring could potentially be added to the federal Endangered Species List is like the Department of Motor Vehicles holding up handing out a driver's license until driving laws change.
Changes required by the NRC because of what happened at Fukushima will be implemented as needed, Lynch said, adding that license renewal is about managing the aging of the plant and not based on changes in the industry.
Entergy officials will continue with inspections at the plant and use lessons from the country's nuclear fleet, Lynch said.
The company is in the process of planning so-called dry cask storage elsewhere on the property for spent fuel rods currently stored in the pool near the top of the reactor, the men said. The move will reduce the number of fuel rods in the pool slightly over time, Lynch said.
Whether or not the plant is relicensed, all spent fuel rods will eventually go into dry cask storage until the federal government figures out what to do with the waste, Alexander said.
SECURING THE PLANT
The reactor and the spent fuel is well-protected in the meantime, Pilgrim's chief radiological scientist Thomas Sowdon said during the tour. In addition to the layers of concrete and steel around the primary containment area, the wall of the secondary containment area is surrounded by another 2 feet of concrete, he said.
The 28 feet of water above the spent fuel is the equivalent density of 12 feet of concrete, he said, adding that it would be nearly impossible to aim a large jet straight through the plant's roof. Even if a small plane could be flown through the roof and its heaviest part -- the engine -- driven into the spent fuel pool, the water would slow it substantially by the time it reached the fuel rods, he said.
And even if the fuel rods were struck they wouldn't explode, he said, adding that the rods are "pretty rugged."
Security around the plant -- both seen and unseen -- make attacks from the sides difficult, Sowdon and Entergy spokeswoman Carol Wightman said.
The plant is located about 13 miles from the Cape Cod Canal. The approach on Beaver Dam Road crosses through bogs, tall pine trees and the planned community and golf courses of Pinehills.
The first visible signs of security are a small gatehouse on the road leading to the plant and barbed-wire fencing backed by security barriers installed in front of the facility's business offices after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
A steel ceiling-to-floor turnstile inside the first security checkpoint is operated by an access card, punch code and a hand-recognition system. A stern looking security guard pats down visitors before they are allowed to proceed.
To access areas around the reactor, employees and visitors must pass through a second checkpoint where a puffer machine blows air that is then collected and checked for residue from explosives.
A PEEK INSIDE
Areas in the plant are divided into four zones: owner-controlled areas such as the parking lot; security owner-controlled areas past the first checkpoint; protected areas beyond the second checkpoint and vital areas accessible only to qualified personnel, Wightman said.
The General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor at the Plymouth facility produces enough heat to turn water into steam that powers house-sized turbines. The turbines, in turn, generate electricity that is shipped off-site via a 345-kilovolt transmission line.
"They make enough heat that if you don't remove it, they will melt the fuel," Sowdon about the products of nuclear fission.
The products also give off radioactive material. In one hallway, a Geiger counter clicked away on a shelf. Before entering areas closer to the reactor, visitors are issued personal counters that register how many millirems of radiation dosage are accumulated during a visit and given a quick rundown about what that means.
On average, humans are exposed to 680 millirems of radiation dose from natural sources each year, Sowdon said. A visit to the plant or living nearby for a year may add another millirem, he said.
During the recent tour, a visitor received an even smaller dose of two microrems or two one-thousandths of a millirem -- less of a dose than from flying in a plane, Wightman said.
Staff at a radiation checkpoint dress in hospital smocks so they don't take excess radiation home with them. When leaving the area visitors must pass through another machine that checks for excess radioactivity.
The movement of employees at the plant is closely monitored with control access cards and video surveillance, Wightman said.
Various thick steel doors are labeled with "FIRE" and "TORNADO" stickers, meaning they are a potential barrier for such events and must be kept closed unless permission is received to keep them open; these also are monitored, Wightman said.
"If there's a hurricane, I'm headed here," she said.
'I CAN'T SEE IT'
Beyond several doors and down hallways -- reminiscent of being onboard a large ship -- is the plant's control room. Carpet on the floor dictates where visitors are allowed to stand and view walls filled with hundreds of knobs, switches and gauges.
Operators typically have experience in naval or other nuclear operations but must undergo two years of additional training, Wightman said.
Crews of six train together every six weeks at an off-site simulator that is exactly like the real thing in practically every way, including sound pumped in to the room to mimic what the plant sounds like when it's operating. There are more than 50 licensed operators at the plant, as well as other nonlicensed operators.
Operators must train for 200 hours and take a manual exam on the simulator each year, according to Al Muse, superintendent of operations. Muse demonstrated what an automatic shutdown of the plant would look like, complete with warning alarms and blinking warning lights.
If a real shutdown takes place, such as occurred last year, it takes seconds for control rods to slide into place and stop fission, Sowdon said. A series of steam-powered pumps, batteries and generators ensure cooling can continue if off-site power is lost, he said.
While some of the surrounding communities have been vocal in their opposition to the plant, other neighbors support its operation.
"If you're going to live within 300 or 400 yards of a power plant, the best thing is nuclear," said Phil Mendelsohn of Warrendale Road. "I can't see it. I can't hear it. I can't smell it."
Mendelsohn said he is in bigger danger on area roads than he is from the neighborhood nuclear plant.
"There's people who'd like to get rid of it, but they don't have anything to replace it," he said.
On Elliot Lane, directly across the street from an access road to the plant, a woman who would only give her first name of Kara said her husband was an operator at Pilgrim and that her father had worked there his whole life.
"I grew up in Plymouth," she said while in her driveway, holding her 18-month-old child, watching for her 2-year-old back on the small home's porch and chiding the fierce-looking family dog.
"I would never say, 'Don't worry about it,'" she said. "Everybody can have their own opinions. Just make sure you have all the facts."
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