EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 27, 2013

Editorial: Let science set fate of Seabrook license


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — There are probably very few people in this region who are happy to live in the shadow of the Seabrook nuclear power plant.

The very worst that can happen -- a major malfunction, a release of radiation, and a complete evacuation of the coastal region -- is something that every person in the area must be prepared for.

That said, it's easy to see why the demand by a number of regional politicians and advocacy groups recently to shut down the plant immediately would resonate with the public.

We are not among those who feel that an immediate shutdown is a wise course of action. It is an unrealistic demand to make on a plant that has proven to be a safe and reliable source of much needed energy. Seabrook's lifespan, though complicated by the discovery of degrading concrete in some areas of the plant, is not yet fulfilled. Political saber-rattling won't change that.

It would be far more productive to continue to focus on the scientific arguments surrounding Seabrook's efforts to have its license extended by 20 years. It currently expires in 2030; Seabrook is in the process of having it extended to 2050.

Many critics have argued that the relicensing process is occurring prematurely, particularly given the discovery of alkali-silica reaction in concrete that has been penetrated by water. The chemical reaction causes cracks in concrete and gradually degrades its strength, though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the ASR discovered at Seabrook has thus far not compromised the plant's safety.

The ASR problem will no doubt be the deciding factor in whether the license is extended; indeed the NRC has made that clear numerous times.

Newburyport-based C10, a non-profit watchdog group, deserves particular mention for its efforts to bring professional and scientific data to the conversation. C10 and the Union of Concerned Scientists have funded studies of Seabrook's ASR by noted Penn State professor Paul Brown, an expert in the field of concrete engineering. Brown's studies have brought needed expertise, challenging the work of the NRC and the plant's owner. If the NRC is ever going to side with those who want the plant to shut down or its license not renewed, the decision will clearly require the kind of scientific data that Brown can provide.

In addition to Brown's work, there has also been a call for Seabrook's owners to conduct more comprehensive (and expensive) ASR tests than are currently being done. We think the scope of the problem merits this. The scientific arguments will win the day.

Too much of the political saber rattling is tied to lingering animosity over the plant's rocky start in the 1970s and 80s. Seabrook has long been the symbol of dysfunction between Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The plant was first conceived in the 1970s, arguably the low point in the emnity that has existed between the two states for centuries. The decision by Public Service of New Hampshire to build the plant was met by significant public resistance, particularly in seacoast communities where emergency evacuation plans for congested beaches such as Plum Island and Salisbury Beach were a joke.

Mass protests were organized to target the Seabrook plant, and mass arrests were conducted by New Hampshire officials -- among them the controversial and combative Gov. Mel Thomson, who was choppered in to Seabrook so he could personally oversee the arrests. Thomson never missed an opportunity to provoke his neighboring states, particularly Massachusetts. It won him short-term support among New Hampshire conservatives, but only served to damage his state's long-term relationship with its neighbors.

Today, Seabrook is a fully functioning plant and considered by the NRC to be among the nation's safest nuclear plants. But the plant will forever live in the long shadow of its sour beginnings.

It is worth knowing what this history is, but it does little to advance the debate over the plant's license.