NRC kicks evacuation plans back to state
By CHRISTINE LEGERE
June 21, 2014
A response to the governor from the country's top nuclear regulator has stirred reaction from Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station foes who say it opens the way to close the plant on the basis that "there's no escape from the Cape."
Last week, Allison Macfarlane, chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, responded to a March letter from Gov. Deval Patrick, in which he expressed concern over Pilgrim's recent performance downgrade as well as the absence of a "viable evacuation plan," in case of an accident.
"The unique geographical relationship between Pilgrim and the communities comprising Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts could put those residents at serious risk should there be an accident," Patrick wrote.
The governor called for closing the plant if it failed to comply with "all health, safety and environmental regulations."
In her letter, Macfarlane assured him Pilgrim's performance complies with public health and safety standards. And she reiterated that the responsibility for an evacuation plan is on Patrick's shoulders.
"The commonwealth of Massachusetts has the overall authority for making protective action decisions (e.g., sheltering and evacuation) to ensure the safety of Massachusetts residents during a radiological event," Macfarlane said.
Plant critics say that authority would allow the governor to demand Pilgrim be closed because it's impossible to come up with a viable evacuation plan should the plant have an accident.
"The current evacuation plan for Pilgrim nuclear power plant is highly unrealistic, discounting the impacts of such basics as weather, traffic and human behavior," wrote Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in an email.
Until the plan is revised, Barry called it "a disaster waiting to happen."
Diane Turco, founder of the Pilgrim watchdog group Cape Downwinders, said Macfarlane's statement has exciting ramifications.
"She identifies the state as responsible for the public safety," Turco said. "Now the governor needs to reject the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency's evacuation plans because the plans have the Cape trapped."
Currently the emergency response plan developed by local and state emergency management officials covers only the 10-mile radius around the Pilgrim plant, the area defined by the NRC as the Emergency Planning Zone. Under that plan at least one of the Cape's two bridges would be closed in a nuclear accident to stop an exodus of Cape residents from slowing the evacuation from the 10-mile zone.
The only plan developed for the Cape is a generic traffic plan MEMA has put together for all emergencies, such as floods, hurricanes and severe storms.
Meanwhile, Cape leaders and Pilgrim watchdogs have clamored for years for an evacuation study.
Seth Rolbein, senior adviser for state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, noted that MEMA officials have said sheltering in place would likely be "the best and maybe the only option" for the Cape.
"Given that, from a public safety point of view, the responsible position is to begin on a plan for the decommissioning of the Pilgrim plant, that transitions the workforce and revenue, and protects the public safety," Rolbein said.
Last summer, KLD Engineering, a New York firm specializing in traffic patterns and evacuation planning, was hired by Entergy, Pilgrim's owner, and MEMA to survey Cape residents to determine how many would try to evacuate in a nuclear incident. They found more than half would race for the bridges.
MEMA spokesman Peter Judge said Wednesday that nothing has been done since KLD completed its survey last summer.
"Obviously there has been concern about the folks on the Cape," Judge said. "We're meeting with the Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee to discuss what the next steps in the traffic plan should be, and we'll go forward in conjunction with them, working on a plan if the worst case did occur."
Kevin Morley, public information officer for the county emergency planning committee, confirmed the plan for a meeting, but added solutions to the "no escape from the Cape" won't easily be found.
"The physical limitations of the geography make it a difficult situation," Morley said.
Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT