A handful of local communities and political leaders in the northern part of the region have urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to halt its re-licensing process of the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant until problems with decaying concrete are resolved.
While Seabrook has maintained a good safety record and has been a reliable producer of electricity, there's legitimate concern over the extent of concrete degradation in the plant, caused by groundwater infiltrating some of the underground, 2-foot-thick, reinforced-concrete walls. The NRC ought to pay closer attention to these local leaders and be more proactive in demonstrating that their concerns are being heard and addressed.
On a recent tour of the plant, the areas where the worst of the deterioration is occurring were fully explored. They lie deep below ground, in an isolated part of the plant where large tunnels carry electrical wiring from the plant's control center to the various machinery throughout the facility. The degradation is nowhere near as severe as local activists might have people believe, but it is clearly present.
Seabrook's engineers have been paying close attention to the degradation and have been conscientious in their handling of the problem. The plant is robust and designed to withstand significant events, including earthquakes. But water is one of the most insidious of degraders, and it's clear that the root of the problem has not been fixed.
The NRC has made it clear that the license-delay resolutions passed by elected boards and letters written by Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, and others are not the agency's primary consideration. The NRC relies primarily on scientific studies, examination of operations, field reports and other data when making its decisions.
The NRC does seek to reach out to the public on occasion, as was demonstrated by the recent hearings held regarding the plant's re-licensing. It needs to extend that effort to its handling of the problem with the concrete.
Unfortunately, NRC's recent decision to hold an important meeting April 23 on safety issues related to the concrete problem, while welcome, will be held not locally but in Maryland. A handful of local people will attend, and the NRC has offered limited access to a remote feed. But for the bulk of local leaders and concerned citizens, this important meeting will be inaccessible.
From the NRC's perspective, this may be the most efficient way to handle the meeting, but from here it looks like the agency is turning a tin ear to the concerns of those who live within a 10-mile radius of the plant. The public depends upon the NRC to be its watchdog, and that role requires the agency to be more in touch with the cities and towns most at risk if things go wrong.