Seabrook watchdog creates radiation monitoring system to withstand extreme weather

By: - July 25, 2022 5:48 am

A device to monitor radiation will be updated to withstand extreme weather and installed at Phillips Exeter Academy. (Courtesy | C-10)

The watchdog group C-10 has 19 devices monitoring radiation levels within a 10-mile radius of the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant. Those independently operated devices provide real-time information and trigger alerts if radiation reaches a dangerous level.

But in 2018, a windstorm took those monitors offline for more than a day, leaving the region with no way to independently verify that radiation levels were safe. It was the only time in the organization’s 30 years that there’s been such an extended outage, said C-10 Executive Director Sarah Abramson. 

With projections that climate change will lead to more severe storms, C-10 is creating a monitoring system that can withstand those extreme weather events. The impacts of climate change are already affecting the region, such as the flooding of homes and institutions on the Seacoast brought on by sea level rise. 

Those changes won’t solve a second weakness: New Hampshire, unlike Massachusetts, has not spent the money to support C-10’s independent monitoring system. As a result, it learns of changes in radiation levels two to three months after it happens, while Massachusetts gets real-time notifications.

“We have to be online 24/7,” Abramson said. “We started planning what technologies might help us achieve climate resilience.”

While state officials in Massachusetts are automatically alerted if C-10 monitors detect dangerous levels of radiation, the same is not true for New Hampshire, which has not funded C-10’s monitoring work. In contrast, the Massachusetts Department of Health has a contract with C-10 that funds most of its $100,000 operating budget.

The monitoring system requires both electricity and internet to relay real-time information. Because a severe storm can cause power outages, the organization looked to renewable sources of energy that can provide electricity independently of the grid. 

The team decided to use solar panels coupled with a battery to create a power system that can function on its own: The batteries charge while the sun is shining. Abramson said the technology would allow the system to remain online for up to a week without sunshine.

A severe storm can also take down internet service, a problem C-10 is looking to solve by migrating its wired internet connection to a wireless system. The team considered using a radio solution, but the topography was too hilly. Instead, they hope to connect to FirstNet, a cellular network created by the government exclusively for use by first responders and emergency personnel.

That network is more robust than a conventional internet subscription because it includes specific towers dedicated to providing emergency services, Abramson said. And the network operator, AT&T, can prioritize first response communication – like radiation monitoring – during an emergency.

C-10 is awaiting final approval from FirstNet, but Abramson said the organization plans to complete its first pilot program by Aug. 30, with an Oct. 10 target to bring the remaining sites in New Hampshire and Massachusetts online. Phillips Exeter Academy will be the first site to launch in New Hampshire.

Abramson said the climate resiliency project costs $125,000, and will save around three metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, about the amount a car produces in that time.

False alarm

Even though most of the 10-mile emergency planning zone lies in New Hampshire, only a third of network sites are in the state. “We think we should have equal representation,” Abramson said. “But the funding just isn’t there to support that, and it can’t just be initial funding because the network requires ongoing maintenance.”

Some New Hampshire lawmakers have been calling on the state to provide additional funding, among them Rep. Peter Somssich, a Portsmouth Democrat who has twice sponsored legislation to get New Hampshire to use C-10’s monitoring.

While C-10 monitors radiation levels in real-time, the state’s monitoring system captures radiation levels only after they have occurred, which could be delayed by two to three months, Somssich said. 

Somssich said state officials opposed his efforts to use C-10’s system, arguing the current system is adequate, they receive information from Seabrook directly, and believe the power plant would inform the state of a serious event.

“To rely on Seabrook to give information is a foolish idea,” said Somssich. “In most nuclear accidents it took a long time for people to realize that an incident got out of control. That’s when they informed people and not before.”

The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for collecting data on radiation, which is a matter of public health. Kathy Remillard, a spokesperson for the department, said it conducts readings and samplings at one- to three-month intervals and that this long-term environmental monitoring provides an understanding of overall conditions in the state. Remillard said an incident would activate the State Emergency Operations Center, and state and local officials would be notified.

A spokesperson for Seabrook said the facility conducts continuous radiation monitoring at over 80 locations on-site, in addition to 100 monitoring locations off-site out to a distance of 20 miles. The spokesperson said the company conducts continuous air sampling and direct radiation monitoring, as well as sampling groundwater, seawater, milk, fish, aquatic plants, food crops, and vegetation. The sampling and analysis results are reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and are available on its website, but the most recent data are from 2020.

“Well-established procedures exist to notify state and local partners in the case of an actual incident, which are regularly tested in drills and exercises, and through monthly communications drills,” Remillard said.

On July 12, Seabrook sent out a false evacuation alarm, instructing residents to leave the area. It took over an hour before Seacoast residents were informed that the alarm had been mistakenly triggered. Local police were initially unable to confirm the false alarm, according to Seacoastonline

“This incident points out the weakness of NH’s ability to provide timely monitoring that is independent of the Seabrook Station operators,” Somssich wrote in a letter to Department of Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn, requesting an investigation of the false alert.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen also criticized the “insufficient communication during and in the aftermath of this inadvertent alarm,” in a statement. She called for an analysis of the breakdown in communication that occurred between the plant and New Hampshire Homeland Security and Emergency Management, local police and fire, and local officials.

In a written statement, Quinn called public safety his highest priority. “I recognize the seriousness of this event and the impact it had on the public,” he said. The department is now conducting a review of the incident to identify shortcomings that contributed to the event, according to the commissioner. 

Remillard said the July 12 false alarm occurred while siren notifications were being tested, which is meant to be done without audio, and therefore it did not trigger the typical alerts that would accompany an actual incident.

The six monitors C-10 operates in New Hampshire were privately funded. 

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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