Nov. 23, 2011
PLYMOUTH, Mass. — On a Saturday morning in October, volunteer John Lamb greeted cars at the Eddy Elementary School in Brewster. One of those cars held Al and Kathy Wyman, who came to get their potassium iodide.
"There are two people, so you will get two tablets each,” Lamb told them, “which is a two-day supply if you ever need them — but we hope you won't. The lady in yellow there will give them to you. Four tablets!"
Brewster officials decided to hold this special drive-up distribution event on this clear, unseasonably warm day, but all Cape Cod towns have potassium iodide supplies. Many South Shore towns do too. The tablets are free to residents and usually located at town health offices.
During a radiation release, potassium iodide, or KI, protects against thyroid cancer.
A safety measure many don’t have
Because the Cape’s only two bridges are in Pilgrim’s direction and only 10 miles from the reactor, if there were an accident, the Cape's 200,000 residents and potentially 500,000 summer visitors would likely be advised to shelter in place: get in the basement, cover the windows and take the KI.
"The reason for giving them ahead is simply that the last thing we want to be doing is dispensing them in a cloud of radioactive gas,” Lamb said. "So it’s good that people have them at home ahead of time.”
It’s not known how many KI pills exist on Cape and who already has them. There’s no official accounting. Inquiries to Cape health departments indicated that hundreds of thousands of pills are stocked in department closets but that only a small percentage, probably less than 10,000 of the 200,000–500,000 pills needed, have been distributed.
Sen. Dan Wolf said he's reached the conclusion that most people don't have KI and don’t know they should get it.
"I think if you ask the average person, 'Where would you go to get potassium iodide in the event that Pilgrim had an issue?' the first question they would ask you is, ‘What’s Pilgrim?’” he said. “I mean, I do not think that a lot of people on the Cape are even that aware that there’s a nuclear power plant within 25 miles of where they're sitting."
Getting off the Cape in an emergency
Just as there’s no KI distribution plan for Cape residents and visitors, there’s also no evacuation plan.
Federal law requires detailed plans to evacuate people within a 10-mile radius during a nuclear disaster. Cape Cod is almost entirely outside that zone. But during the Fukushima disaster, the NRC called for a 50-mile evacuation.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said that the lack of an evacuation plan didn’t mean there might not be an evacuation.
“When we looked at some of the possible radioactive impacts for people living in the area, it made sense to call for a wider evacuation area” in the Japan disaster, he said. “And in fact that could happen at a US plant. Even though we use the 10-mile radius emergency planning zone as kind of the foundation of emergency response, that does not mean that it could not be expanded if situations dictated.”
Neighbors call for safeguards
The town of Duxbury, just north of the Pilgrim plant, is within the 10-mile evacuation zone. At a Town Meeting last month, more than 1,000 residents voted to support a call for the installation of airborne radiation emission monitors in their and other towns adjacent to Pilgrim.
The 18 monitors would detect radioactive particles in the air. They would also take weather readings such as wind speed and direction, which would provide real-time information to state officials if they were trying to sort out who should shelter and who should evacuate. The monitors would be located in towns such as Marshfield, Scituate and Duxbury and on Cape Cod.
State officials were still sorting out how much the system would cost and who would pay. Mary Lampert is co-chair of the town’s nuclear advisory committee and president of the anti-nuclear group Pilgrim Watch.
“In a disaster,” she said, “we want to know that the state’s decision of whether we should evacuate — whether we should shelter or whether we should go about our daily business — is based upon facts or is essentially a guess.”
The NRC does not require reactor owners to have off-site monitoring. Pilgrim already has a 14-monitor off-site system within a mile of the fence line. Pilgrim government relations manager Jack Alexander said another system was not necessary and might do more harm than good.
"First of all... it wouldn't meet the needs of the professionals who are trained and experienced in this,” Alexander said. “And secondly, it would provide non-useful information or perhaps an overload of information to people who need to make decisions immediately.”
The situation as it stands
Pilgrim was shut down on Nov. 17 because of a leaking valve in one of the reactor’s steam-piping tunnels. An NRC spokesperson told WGBH News that the valve could not be isolated, so the reactor was shut down to make repairs. As of Nov. 23, it was not known when the plant would return to operation.
Air monitors, KI tablets and evacuation plans — none of these things are part of Pilgrim’s relicensing process. The commission looks primarily at safety-related maintenance issues and environmental impacts. Pilgrim is one of 14 US reactors under review for license extensions from the NRC, which has approved 71 so far. The NRC has on occasion asked companies to revise applications and resubmit, but it has never issued a denial. A decision regarding Pilgrim is expected at any time.
POWER STRUGGLE: COMPLETE SERIES