Florida Power & Light Co. is soon expected to ask federal regulators to extend the license for the Seabrook Station nuclear reactor by 20 years.
If this occurs, it could be licensed for 60 years – up from 40 – meaning the reactor could operate until 2049.
The request is the latest by utility companies that own nuclear reactors. Federal regulators have ruled on applications for 59 of the 104 U.S. reactors – and have approved all 59.
Reactors originally were granted 40-year licenses, based on the expected life of their mechanical parts. But utilities want to maximize the time reactors operate, even though parts corrode over time.
This is a journey into the unknown. Nobody knows how safe a 60-year-old nuclear reactor would be – because none have operated more than 41 years.
There has been relatively little public discussion on the pluses and minuses of keeping aging reactors open. But in areas like southern Vermont, southern New York and central New Jersey, heated battles are being fought. Citizen groups are demanding that nuclear utilities prove that aging reactors pose no harm to public health.
So is it safe to keep Seabrook Station open for up to 60 years?
Some of the same points made by demonstrators in the 1970s and ’80s can still be made. The most powerful argument concerns a meltdown. If one occurred at the reactor, the area could not be evacuated in time.
Nearly 5 million people live within 50 miles of the plant, including much of metropolitan Boston, and many thousands would suffer from radiation poisoning or cancer. A meltdown is not likely, but not out of the question. In the past two decades, at least four “near miss” accident situations occurred at Seabrook Station.
Another health concern is radioactive waste, which are particles stored at the plant in deep pools of water that must be constantly cooled for many years. A generation ago, opponents warned that it would be saddled with this radiation forever.
Because the Obama administration recently pulled funding for the planned repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., the waste will remain at Seabrook Station for the foreseeable future. The amount of radioactivity equals hundreds of Hiroshima bombs.
Along with the old issues, new matters of concern have been added since the plant opened. One is whether adequate security measures can be taken to guard against a terrorist attack. Another is how much radiation have people been exposed to from emissions and whether these emissions harmed people.
Like all reactors, Seabrook Station must routinely release a portion of its radioactive waste into local air and water. These releases vary greatly over time.
Federal records show that, in certain years, releases are hundreds of times greater than usual. For example, Seabrook Station releases were one thousand times higher in 2001-02 than they were in 2003-04. This radioactivity enters human bodies through breathing and the food chain.
Official statistics show that the cancer rate in Rockingham County, where the plant is located, is the highest of all 10 New Hampshire counties. Each year, more than 1,500 county residents are diagnosed with the disease. While many factors can raise cancer risk, radiation exposure from Seabrook Station should be considered as one of them.
The Rockingham County cancer rate among children, who are most susceptible to harmful effects of radiation, is the second highest in the state, and 32 percent above the U.S. rate. The county rate of thyroid cancer, which is especially sensitive to radiation, is also second highest, 23 percent above the U.S. rate. These statistics provide further clues that the plant has harmed local residents.
Any decision to extend the license for another 20 years should be made carefully. It should include a complete “report card” of Seabrook Station’s performance since it opened, including radioactive emissions, levels in air and water, and cancer rates.
Local residents are entitled to this information. If evidence fails to demonstrate Seabrook Station is “safe,” expansion of other non-polluting and renewable electricity sources should be considered.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.