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Worker at Pilgrim exposed to enough radiation to set off alarm

Workers load radioactive material into a storage cask at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.
file photo
Workers load radioactive material into a storage cask at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

A worker at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station has been exposed to radiation — enough to set off an alarm as the person went to leave the radiologically controlled area of the reactor building.

The recent exposure came to light via an anonymous letter sent to activist group Cape Downwinders, postmarked May 14. A second copy went to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The source of the letter is unknown, but Pilgrim owner Holtec International has confirmed that an exposure occurred.

Holtec spokesperson Patrick O’Brien said a worker was performing radiological surveys of the head of the reactor vessel and inadvertently contacted it, causing particles to become airborne.

“A plant individual received internal radiation exposure that was promptly reported and entered into the facility Corrective Action Program,” he told CAI in an email. “The individual was appropriately monitored at all times for their personal exposure. The dose received by the individual did not approach allowed exposure levels established to ensure worker protection.”

Cape Downwinders is asking the state to investigate.

“We demand an independent investigation into these allegations,” said the group’s director, Diane Turco. “And it needs to be taken seriously and not just pushed under the rug. We're not going to let that happen.”

She said the Massachusetts Department of Public Health should be taking a more active role.

“Massachusetts workers are being exposed and contaminated,” she said.

An official at DPH said the agency forwarded the letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The official described the NRC as the appropriate regulatory office.

At the NRC, which inspects Pilgrim, spokesperson Neil Sheehan said radiation exposure does not equal overexposure.

“The worker involved is believed to have received a small fraction of the allowable limit, with the caveat that the exact amount is still being calculated,” he said.

The annual limit from occupational exposure to radiation for nuclear plant workers is 5,000 millirems. The NRC says the average American is exposed to about 620 millirems of radiation each year. Half of that comes from natural background sources, such as the sun.

Sheehan said the agency was promptly notified of the exposure and is inspecting the exposure as part of routine oversight. The agency is not planning an extra inspection specifically to respond to this incident.

This is the third anonymous letter about safety issues at Pilgrim to emerge since last summer. Local activists have called the unknown author a "whistleblower," but whether the person works at Pilgrim has not been publicly established.

In the past, Holtec called into question the idea of a whistleblower by saying the author was using publicly available information. But this time, it’s not clear if any public report has yet captured the incident.

The letter makes additional safety allegations, including that positions of technical staff responsible for determining workers’ radiation exposure had been eliminated due to cost cutting, and that technicians didn't have the detection equipment they needed for airborne radioactivity.

O’Brien denied those allegations.

He said that with the exception of the personnel exposure, the assertions in the letter "do not provide any new information or concerns that have not been fully addressed previously."

An in-plant investigation is ongoing and includes “analysis independent of the supervisor involved in the activity,” he said.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.