This is the same problem we will face with the thin walled Holtec casks at Indian Point.

Engineering expert Paul Blanch address NDCAP members about reliability issues with Holtec’s dry-cask containers. [Wicked Local Photo/Dave Kindy]

The nuclear engineer with 50 years of experience claimed the dry-cask storage containers, which hold spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste, at the shut-down Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station are unsafe.

PLYMOUTH – In the 1960s, Paul Blanch was hundreds of feet under the ocean onboard the USS Patrick Henry, a ballistic-missile submarine. He worked, ate and slept within 100 feet of a nuclear reactor for months at a time. Because of rigorous Navy procedures, Blanch felt safe from harm. He doesn’t feel the same way about Plymouth today, though.

“I felt safer at that time than I would feel now if I resided in the vicinity of Pilgrim or any reactor undergoing decommissioning controlled by Holtec with NRC’s oversight,” Blanch told attendees at the Nuclear Decommissioning Community Citizens Advisory Panel meeting in Plymouth Thursday.

The reason?

The nuclear engineer with 50 years of experience claimed the dry-cask storage containers, which hold spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste, at the shut-down Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station are unsafe. Essentially, he said, the system for holding “the most toxic material on the face of the earth” is an accident waiting to happen – and he’s convinced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t care.

Accodring to an engineering expert, Holtec’s dry-cask storage system is unsafe. [Wicked Local File Photo]

“It’s going to break, and it’s going spread radiation beyond 10 miles,” he said. “The NRC’s mission statement is about protecting the people and the environment, but the people don’t believe it.”

He added, “In my unbiased opinion, safety is not a priority for the NRC. Its goal is to ensure the economic viability of the nuclear industry. It’s an incestuous relationship.”

Blanch is a highly regarded and much-in-demand nuclear expert. The professional control systems engineer has consulted with Maine Yankee, Millstone and Indian Point nuclear power stations, and has also been a whistleblower and witness in numerous court cases and testified before the U.S. Senate. He even helped Pilgrim identify and resolve safety issues for the NRC, which later slapped him with a violation.

“It was the NRC’s attempt to suppress my input on safety,” he said. He also made clear his views on the industry: “I’m not pro- or anti-nuclear; I’m pro-safety.”

Blanch cited a lack of oversight and deficient design for his belief that the dry-cask storage containers are unsafe. He has extensively studied the system developed by Holtec International, the corporation that now owns Pilgrim and is coordinating its decommissioning. He is convinced that degradation and corrosion will ultimately lead to failure long before the material it holds is no longer dangerous.

“There are millions and millions of curies (units of radioactivity) in each of these casks,” he said. “One curie can kill you. What happens when just one container fails?”

Blanch said he didn’t always believe the Holtec casks were faulty. Then he started studying the system and researching its limitations. The results surprised him.

“In addition to the NRC being reluctant to provide any meaningful oversight, Holtec’s cask design and engineering are severely deficient,” he said. “There are no relief valves to release pressure buildup, no meaningful accident analysis or aging management program, no way to inspect the cask interiors and no way to repair the casks if something happens.”

He added, “Holtec already has an improved design for double-walled casks for approval before the NRC. They are almost admitting the first casks are a deficient design.”

Compounding this problem is the wide-spread use of these dry-storage casks by the nuclear industry. Nearly 1,400 Holtec containers are employed at more than 100 nuclear power plants. For Blanch, that poses a major risk with significant implications for future generations.

“Who is financially responsible when failure occurs?” he asked. “What happens 20, 30, 40 years from now when there is a leak and Holtec isn’t around?”

Another fear is the threat of terrorism or a natural disaster. Blanch said the storage setup is worrisome because casks are kept in the open and not protected from the elements or major events. With no secure facility to shield the casks, there is no way to contain leaks or spills in the event of an earthquake, bombing or other catastrophe.

“They’re like pins at the end of a bowling alley,” he said. “If I was a terrorist and wanted to do harm, I know what I would do.”

The ultimate problem, Blanch pointed out, is what to do with nuclear waste. Originally, the federal government said it would be responsible for all radioactive materials but has since reneged on that plan. Blanch said Plymouth and other communities around the country will basically serve as nuclear waste dumps for thousands of years.

“We’re hoping science can come up with a way to deal with it,” he said. “Can this material be reburned? I’ve seen the research and I’m not optimistic. That’s a long way off. We’re leaving this mess for future generations to worry about.”

Blanch, who lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, completed his presentation by saying he came to Plymouth at his own expense. He said he feels firmly enough about this subject to speak out at communities where he believes there is a danger. He put an image of two young children on the screen as he made his final statement:

“As a submariner, I always felt safe. I would not feel safe having my grandchildren living next to this facility. That’s why I do what I do today – for my grandchildren.”

By David Kindy