NEWBURYPORT — For nearly 20 years, the locally based C-10 Research & Education Foundation has been monitoring radiation levels at the NextEra Energy Seabrook power plant using funds provided by the state.
In addition to the radiological monitoring conducted regularly by NextEra Energy, the citizen volunteers who make up C-10 have been monitoring levels themselves to allay their own concerns.
In recent years, however, C-10's annual stipend from the state for the monitoring has been cut significantly, from $90,356 in fiscal 2004 to $40,000 this fiscal year.
Fearful that C-10 could lose some or all of its ability to monitor the Seabrook station, Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, and Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, this week asked the state's newly created Nuclear Oversight Committee to ensure independent radiological monitoring of the Seabrook plant continues.
Concern over a possible radiation leak has reached new heights in recent weeks following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami off the northwest coast of Japan. The disaster killed as many as 25,000 people and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, which led to mass evacuations and sent millions of gallons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Since the accident, officials at the stricken nuclear plant have been sharply criticized for their lack of clear or precise information regarding ongoing conditions and the scope of the disaster.
"As recent events have clearly demonstrated, relying on a nuclear power plant for information about the release of radiation is an untenable situation," Costello and Baddour wrote in a letter to the Nuclear Oversight Committee. "In the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, the public received conflicting and incorrect information about that amount of radiation in the air in the areas immediately surrounding the plant. We would not want a similar situation to happen in the commonwealth."
C-10 executive director Sandra Gavutis agreed, saying it was vital for independent monitoring to continue since data collected by NextEra Energy can take as long as 18 months to get to the public after it is submitted to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Funding for C-10 was established in 1993 as part of an executive order signed by then-Gov. William F. Weld in response to the recent opening of what was formerly called the Seabrook Station. Six Massachusetts communities — Amesbury, Merrimac, Salisbury, Newburyport, Newbury and West Newbury — are within a 10-mile radius of the plant and are considered part of the Seabrook emergency planning zone.
Gavutis said the decrease in state money this year hasn't affected C-10's ability to monitor the plant but has stopped the group from investing in new equipment that would enhance its coverage areas. Currently, C-10 monitors the power plant from 15 locations. Once data is collected in its Newburyport office, it's then sent to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
"We're able to monitor, but we would like to go to the next phase," Gavutis said.
Gavutis said C-10 is hoping funding is restored in the next budget to the fiscal 2004 figure so it can purchase more equipment and improve the flow of data from the monitoring sites to its office. The worst-case scenario would be a repeat of fiscal 2009 when no funding was given to radiological monitoring due to miscommunication between MEMA and state lawmakers.
Baddour and Costello's letter was presented Wednesday before the start of the Nuclear Oversight Committee's hearings on the safety of the region's nuclear power plants. During more than five hours of testimony, the committee questioned officials from the three nearest nuclear power plants — NextEra Energy Seabrook as well as Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth and Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, Vt. — about the safety of their plants.
The Seabrook power plant, commissioned in 1990, generates 1,230 megawatts and powers 1.4 million homes and businesses. It has never suffered a complete blackout or loss of electricity, which crippled the Fukushima nuclear reactor and sent millions of gallons of radioactive water into the ocean, according to NextEra Energy officials.
At the hearing, Gavutis and other members of C-10 were part of a panel composed of anti-nuclear power activists who voiced their concern about the possibility of Seabrook, Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee power plants losing electricity.
The Nuclear Oversight Committee seemed to take the panel's concerns to heart, as many of the questions members asked plant officials were based on the issues raised by C-10.
Gavutis said it was obvious the committee took the panel's concerns seriously, but in the future, she would like to schedule one-on-one meetings with committee members.