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The 525-ton, 65-foot tall reactor vessel for the Boston Edison Company’s Pilgrim Nuclear Station took a month-long, 3,587-mile voyage to go from the fabrication shops at Combustion Engineering on the Tennessee River to the plant site before being nudged into a landing — about a mile south of where the Pilgrims had landed 350 years before


Dear Reader,

The initial project we pursued after launching the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) in 2015 was a feature titled “Dedham and Goliath.” Published in DigBoston and written by Nick Moorhead, the article was the first dive any outlet in our region took into shenanigans and protests around the Algonquin pipeline offshoot being built to carry natural gas through Dedham, Westwood, and West Roxbury. We chose to make our first impression with an article about natural gas for several reasons. Among them: to display our intent to jump on issues that are often tragically ignored and to demonstrate out of the gate that we planned to explore environmental issues that even the alleged liberals at newspapers of record are reluctant to cover.

Photo of 1979 demonstration in Boston by Jon Chase

In the time since, we have reported dozens of features and hundreds of columns, many of which hold accountable the goons who disregard our planet, from local politicians who are more inclined to let condominium developers build towers on the coastline than they are to plan for the impacts of climate change, to international behemoths that pollute with impunity. Even after all that digging, though, the bureaucratic bullies from Nick’s Dedham pipeline story — specifically, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — stand out as some of the most ethically scrambled villains of all. By favoring the interests of executives and stockholders over demands of people in communities where pipes were being placed along popular thoroughfares (one stretch runs beside an open pit rock mine that detonates heavy explosives), the regulators proved that there is virtually nothing that can stop Big Energy when there are big bucks to be made. At the same time, the activists who fought them showed that not even a torrent of seemingly insurmountable adversity — from mass arrests, to lawsuits, to officials whose allegiances are to the honchos they’re supposed to keep in check — should get in the way of standing up for public safety.

During my time as a reporter and editor in New England, I have encountered several of the activists who regularly demonstrate against Pilgrim. In 2012, organizers from an Occupy Cape Cod faction brought me to Falmouth to speak about my experience visiting protest encampments across the country, and their volunteers left a lasting impression on me. Unlike the majority of younger occupiers I had met, the mostly senior squadron on the Cape had moved beyond rhetoric and general assemblies, with people spending several hours every week helping their neighbors wrestle with unscrupulous home mortgage lenders. With many of them having bonded through the struggle against the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station over the preceding decades, they understood that it was their responsibility to help out where the government had failed.

When we first asked Miriam Wasser to consider documenting stories about nuclear protests for our BINJ oral history series, several things were different than they are today. For one, it was before an inspector from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) accidentally forwarded a troubling report about the Plymouth plant to longtime crusader Diane Turco, executive director of the anti-Pilgrim group Cape Downwinders; among other damning statements, the email, sent on Dec 6, 2016, noted, “The plant seems overwhelmed by just trying to run the station,” and, “It appears that many staff across the site may not have the standards to know what ‘good’ actually is.” In the time since, as Miriam has spent innumerable hours researching old documents and interviewing people who have been vocally concerned about such risks for generations, its track record of safety problems has continued. During this year’s early January “bomb cyclone” that flooded much of coastal Massachusetts, the plant was forced to shut down after losing one of two external power sources.

Though the NRC appears to be an even bigger joke under President Donald Trump than it was under his negligent predecessors, the intention of this work is not to frighten readers. Rather it is to further alert the public to the bankrupt nature of what passes for real oversight in the United States, even when the lives of millions are potentially in danger. On the strength of Miriam’s hard work and expertise, and of participants who lent their memories and photos to the effort, we hope this time capsule preserves the people’s history and informs this and other movements moving forward. As is explained in detail in this volume, if not for the actions of a dedicated core activist crew on the Cape over a 50-year span, there could be two or three reactors on the bay that may have operated long after the planned closing for next year.

On that note… Pilgrim may be slated to shut down in 2019, but as the struggle chugs along for those who will still live in close proximity to possible contamination from its remnants, there’s no doubt that the forces who have stood up for their health and safety for the past half-century will keep fighting. This is their story.

Chris Faraone, BINJ Editorial Director


INTRO + PART I

Ona sunny morning last September, a small group of men and women met in the Christmas Tree Shops parking lot by the Sagamore Bridge. It was Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, and the line of cars heading over the bridge out of Cape Cod was steadily growing as the minutes went by.

Two women from Cape Downwinders, the local anti-nuclear group that organized the day’s rally, began to unpack signs and banners from a car. They carried them over to the metal guardrail that separates the parking lot from Route 6. Nearby, Diane Turco, director of Cape Downwinders, struggled with a white pop-up tent. As she fought against the wind to tape the banners to the lightweight metal frame, the two other women, Mary Conathan and Susan Carpenter, put down their banners on the grass and came to help her.

All three wore neon green T-shirts that read “Shut Down Pilgrim” and laughed as they tried to keep the tent from blowing away. After finally getting it strapped to the guardrail with bungee cords, they walked back to the car to get the rest of their signs and greet the latest arrivals.

In all, about a dozen people came to the rally — a smaller crowd than the organizers had hoped for — and they spread out along the road with their banners and signs. Cars began honking almost immediately. Occasionally, someone rolled down a window and cheered.

“I am amazed now how many people are paying attention,” Carpenter said. Up until a few years ago, she explained, a lot of people in the area supported the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. “People were saying that we need the power and it keeps our rates down. Now people thank us.”

For those on the Cape, the Pilgrim question is hard to ignore — and not only because of regular public demonstrations like the annual Labor Day and Memorial Day rallies at the bridge. Massachusetts’ sole nuclear power plant has been in the news for several problems, including during the most recent winter storms.

In 2015, after a series of unplanned shutdowns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission downgraded the Plymouth plant’s safety rating and deemed it one of the three worst-performing reactors in the country. Shortly thereafter, Pilgrim’s owner-operator, Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation, announced that it would close the plant by June 2019.

For those at the bridge, the upcoming closure, while exciting, also presents a whole new host of safety concerns.

“What happens at Pilgrim could set precedent for the country, and we’re pushing for Pilgrim to be the poster child for public safety,” Turco said. “Unfortunately, we have a lot more work to do. We hope that we’ve provided a foundation for activism in our community, but this is going to be an ongoing issue.”

With the plant about to enter its final year of operation, and anti-Pilgrim activists planning the next stages of their campaign, it seemed a fitting time to look back at the 50-year fight against one of the country’s most problematic nuclear power plants.

What follows is an oral history of the anti-Pilgrim movement, patched together from extensive interviews conducted with more than 20 experts and activists, many of whom have spent countless hours litigating in court, writing petitions, attending demonstrations, and even sitting in jail cells. The message, tactics, politics, and players have changed over the past half-century, but the underlying effort — to stand up for the health and safety of their families and neighbors — has been unrelenting.

 

Photo courtesy of Joyce Johnson

 

PEACENIKS + PICNICS (1965–1980)

In the mid-1960s, the Massachusetts utility Boston Edison Company began talking about building a nuclear power plant in Plymouth. The company sent representatives to the town to talk with residents and elected officials about the economic benefits such a plant could bring.

MEG SHEEHAN (environmental lawyer, former Plymouth resident): I remember being a kid and growing up in Plymouth. It was a very small town [between 15,000 and 18,000 residents, according to US Census records from the time] and it didn’t have a lot of industry. The local rope factory, Cordage Company … had closed, so the town selectmen were trying to attract new industries.

This was the time period when industry was taking the technology developed during the Manhattan Project and trying to find a commercial use for it. So Boston Edison was trying to convince everyone that nuclear power was clean and safe. I remember that Boston Edison came into town and they had a trailer parked outside of the elementary school. They went around telling people that nuclear power was green and clean and safe; the town selectmen bought it hook, line, and sinker. Meanwhile, we were learning to duck and cover in class.

In 1967, with the town of Plymouth on board, Boston Edison submitted a proposal to the US Atomic Energy Commission — the predecessor of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC — to build the plant. The agency approved the request, and construction began the following year.

MEG SHEEHAN: That’s when I first got involved. I asked my mother if I could put a sign on our front lawn that said “No Nukes” or “Don’t Build Pilgrim.” I was 13 and my parents lived on Route 3A, so [the construction company] was driving all these trucks to Pilgrim past our house. The sign was very visible.

Lawn signs didn’t stop construction, and Pilgrim began producing power in 1972. Shortly thereafter, Boston Edison announced plans to construct two more reactors — Pilgrim 2 and Pilgrim 3.

BILL ABBOTT (lawyer, co-founder of Plymouth County Nuclear Information Center): [My family] moved to Plymouth in 1973. Pilgrim 1 had just opened a few years before we got here, but we paid little attention to it initially. Then there was a story in the local paper that said Boston Edison was trying to get permits to build two additional reactors, and they were going to do it quickly. They thought the permitting for the next two would be simple. They stated that the second reactor, Pilgrim 2, would open in 1975, and Pilgrim 3 sometime in the late ’70s. The newspaper story concluded, I remember, by saying that there was no known opposition. So they thought these two additional units would be a slam-dunk and they’d have a real fast approval process.

I was living only four or five miles from the site, so I started looking into issues with nuclear power. The more I read, the more concerned I got. … I started reaching out, and I can’t remember how we got hooked up, but I started talking with the Union of Concerned Scientists [and other concerned citizens].

We formed a local group, Plymouth County Nuclear Information Center, called PICNIC, and we became the organization that for the next 10–15 years led the fight against Pilgrim 2 and 3, and then back against Pilgrim 1. … I always thought it was important to have an organization that would be conducting this, and not just an individual.

In 1974 or ’75 we opened a storefront in downtown Plymouth. … It was right by the corner of Main Street and Court Street, on the block next to the fire station. It looked like a political campaign office: It had tables, some posters, and a lot of signage. It basically was a political campaign. It was staffed by one person, and people would walk in off the street and we’d give them literature, just like at a political campaign headquarters. … We’d prepare little pamphlets that we’d print and pass out. It was a black pamphlet and the big headline was “Do you know what plutonium is?” And then a couple lines down it’d say: “You better find out.” Then the inside would be the whole story about how Pilgrim produces plutonium as a byproduct and that it is incredibly deadly.

 

Architect’s rendering of proposed Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Units 2 and 3 to be built adjacent to the present Reston Edison Company’s 664,000 kilowatt nuclear generating station (right) in Plymouth, Mass. Circa 1974

 

ED RUSSELL (lawyer, activist, Plymouth resident): I had some knowledge that there was a nuclear plant here, but I wasn’t really aware of the consequences of having that plant until I picked that up from Bill Abbott.

PINE DUBOIS (executive director of Jones River Watershed Association, president and executive director of Jones River Landing): I actually moved to the area [in 1975] because of Pilgrim — well, because of Gerry Studds [who died in 2006], the congressman at the time in Massachusetts in this area. He was one of the shining stars of the anti-nuclear warfare movement and cautioned about nuclear energy, and when I was in Chicago and going to school at the time, he stuck out as somebody that had real things to say and was honest and thoughtful. So I actually moved to the area because of him. … And that’s when Pilgrim 2 was looming on the horizon.

BILL ABBOTT: I am a lawyer, so we decided I would intervene at every single legal point. We filed cases with the NRC, we intervened in licensing proceedings and in environmental proceedings, and we filed suit in Plymouth to try to stop the site from being zoned for two more plants. …

Being in so many simultaneous proceedings at once actually paid off because we could use what Edison said at one proceeding in another proceeding. For example, one of the key arguments they had to make with the NRC [to get the permits for Pilgrim 2 and 3] was that they were in robust financial shape. But at the same time, they were making a case at the state Department of Public Utilities that they needed rate relief. So at the NRC meetings, we would enter testimony from the DPU [hearings]. It really worked.

In 1975, Edison announced they were canceling Pilgrim 3 and that they would just try to get Pilgrim 2 licensed. And they got really close; they were so sure that Pilgrim 2 would be approved that they went ahead and built major components of the plant off-site, spending $300 million. But they couldn’t bring any of these things into Plymouth until they got the permit, which we were fighting [in the courts]. … Then the NRC issued what they called a limited work authorization program, which was something the NRC made up to let some of the building start at Pilgrim. PICNIC challenged that [in court] and it was reversed.

ED RUSSELL: Bill Abbott filed administrative proceedings at every single thing that Boston Edison wanted to do. They had to file a series of applications to do X or to do Y or to report each year on this or that. And he was dogged; he never let any one of them go without appealing. It just wore them down.

PINE DUBOIS: When I came down here, I was working with a non-profit dealing with battered women’s services and engaged in organic agriculture. Boston Edison was transporting pieces of the turbine through Kingston on the road we lived on, and since we didn’t want Pilgrim 2 to be built, we organized the kids that were working with us. I had 23 kids working at the farm, and we started stalking the transport vehicles and [shouting at them], “We can heat with wood, we don’t need nuclear!” We also threw pieces of cordwood at the trucks. [No damage was done, but] the kids had fun and it got into the press. In other words, we tried to challenge them in any way we could to get more awareness about what was happening.

BILL ABBOTT: One of the other things we did during the Pilgrim 2 fight was to hold big public events. We had five or six public debates where I was on the opposition side and there was a spokesman from the plant.

PINE DUBOIS: There was a pretty reliable and active group of local residents that were concerned about Pilgrim and stayed motivated and exchanged ideas and rallied at those events. There wasn’t a single set of people at the time. It was wide ranging, with a lot of people from Plymouth, Kingston, and Duxbury.

BILL ABBOTT: I remember that we had one rally where quite a few people came — about a thousand people. It was right at the junction of the access road to the plant and Route 3A. It was a typical 1960s-style rally with folk music and speakers. I remember Ralph Nader was one of our featured speakers.

BILL ABBOTT: By the end of the ’70s, Boston Edison decided they’d spent enough money and they were going to cancel Pilgrim 2. It was canceled in 1980; we were at it for six years. And after that, we began to focus on Pilgrim 1.

ED RUSSELL: Bill Abbott is a key to what’s happened in Massachusetts. We would have a Pilgrim 2 and maybe even Pilgrim 3 if it weren’t for his dogged litigation back in the day. He was very effective at just keeping Boston Edison at bay, which is why we only have one plant to deal with now.

BILL ABBOTT: We weren’t successful in closing Pilgrim 1, but we got a lot achieved. We got monitors that go on light poles to measure radiation all around the area, and we got the state to institute a real-time radiation-monitoring program.

PINE DUBOIS: After they announced Pilgrim 2 wasn’t going to happen, Reagan was elected and he took the solar panels off the White House and killed every incentive that Carter put in. It was a downhill landslide in terms of environmental protections from there, and we focused on other things — mostly land protection and river protection. We let it go, basically, at least I did. And we focused on things we could do rather than things we could not do.

BILL ABBOTT: This went on for a number of years until other groups sprung up in the late ’80s.

 

‘To The Village Square’ | Photo by and courtesy of Lionel Delevingne

 

SEA CHANGE (1975–1985)

As PICNIC was fighting Pilgrim in Massachusetts during the mid-1970s, the Public Service Company of New Hampshire proposed a two-unit nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and another influential grassroots anti-nuclear movement formed in response.

PAUL GUNTER (anti-nuclear activist, co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance): By 1975, a lot of local New Hampshire citizens’ groups like the Granite State Alliance, as well as local newspaper editorial boards and political groups, had started to coalesce around anti-nuclear work and public education. I was brought into the organizing of it that year and got educated on the Seabrook construction issue. At the time, I was involved in prisoners’ rights and prisoners’ family support work in New Hampshire and, interestingly enough, learned about the issue from a group of apple pickers.

The group, the Greenleaf Harvesters, would take a tithe — 20 percent — of their earnings, and at the end of the year would donate the money to some organization. Our prisoner advocacy group had been a recipient of that generosity, and I learned about Seabrook from them.

The next year, the loose coalition of anti-nuclear groups did a march from Manchester to Seabrook in mid-April. We walked onto the then-still-forested construction site and had a rally that [noted Australian anti-nuclear crusader, physician, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee] Dr. Helen Caldicott was featured at. It was the first time I had heard about her, and she spoke so eloquently about the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Anti-nuclear fervor continued to simmer over the spring of 1976, and by summertime, what had previously been an informal coalition of anti-nuclear groups throughout New England coalesced into a group calling itself the Clamshell Alliance. The group pledged to oppose Seabrook’s construction and began an organized campaign of nonviolent direct action.

JOYCE JOHNSON (Falmouth-based anti-nuclear activist): We went up to Seabrook in 1976 and protested there. I remember it was a lot of people and a lot of marching; we just marched and marched and marched through the town. My two young boys were camping with us in the woods too — the only kind of camping my boys had known had been protest camping.

PAUL GUNTER: On Aug. 1, [1976,] during a rally near the construction site, a group of 18 of us walked out onto the site and got arrested. Basically, the police asked us to leave; we said no, so it was criminal trespass. That kicked off and was the opening move of the Clamshell Alliance. A few weeks later, on Aug. 26, 180 of us were arrested.

In the spring of 1977, the Clamshell Alliance planned another anti-nuclear rally outside Seabrook. This time, people from all over New England showed up, and by April 30, at least 2,000 protesters were on site.

PAUL GUNTER: We occupied the construction site, having walked on from neighboring private properties — we called them “friendlies” — that were used as staging areas. Two thousand people moved from these friendlies onto the construction site, and we occupied the parking lot. We essentially set up a community there.

The state of New Hampshire sent officers, and there was a composite of law enforcement from various states — except Massachusetts Governor Dukakis did not and would not send state troopers to that action.

We were subsequently arrested on May Day, and it took them about 16 hours to arrest all 1,414 of us. We were put on National Guard trucks and school buses and sent into five National Guard armories and two county jails. They held us for two weeks because people were in bail solidarity and wouldn’t pay. After two weeks, there were still about 700 people in jail, and finally the state capitulated and released everybody on their personal recognizance.

The ironic part is that essentially the state sponsored, or at least incarcerated, what amounted to a symposium of the anti-nuke movement. People used that time in jail to educate each other on nuclear issues, and we fostered deep bonds that then spread out all over the country. What originally was the Clamshell Alliance turned out to be more of a crab shell alliance since dozens of anti-nuke groups and individuals went back to their respective states and formed a national anti-nuke movement. And to the Clamshell Alliance’s credit, the anti-nuke movement gained public acclaim and credibility.

PINE DUBOIS: We took energy off each other. It was good that the Clamshell Alliance was really active and working hard; so were we. It made a lot of difference to us that there was a sense of a movement rather than the sense of a small group of people going after Boston Edison. I think it made a big difference because the Clamshell Alliance was really strong at the time. I don’t think we were as strong, but we got energy from them.

From there, things began to deteriorate for the Clamshell Alliance because “there were some groups that were no longer satisfied with symbolic actions with guidelines that included no destruction of property,” Gunter says. These philosophical tensions came to a head the following year as the group planned what was gearing up to be its biggest rally to date: another occupation of the plant.

PAUL GUNTER: It was originally planned as a nonviolent action, but Lyndon LaRouche [a controversial political figure known for spreading conspiracy theories] told the governor of New Hampshire that he had an informant who said the Clamshell Alliance intended to destroy property on the construction site. Governor Meldrim Thomson then said he would use everything, including bullets, to stop what he saw as an effort to sabotage the construction of Seabrook. We lost a lot of our friendlies because of that, and soon after, our consensus process broke down.

Some people wanted to hold a rally despite Thomson’s warnings, and so without telling the rest of the group, Gunter says, “a few alliance leaders negotiated a deal with the attorney general of the state of New Hampshire to hold the three-day, on-site occupation legally.” Seabrook’s owners also agreed to the plan, and from June 24 to 26, 1978, thousands of protesters demonstrated while law enforcement stood by.

PAUL GUNTER: We had a huge occupation, but it led to a schism because some people thought it was crazy that we had abandoned civil disobedience by negotiating with the state. There were also some groups that were no longer satisfied with guidelines that included no destruction of property, and these people said, “To hell with symbolic nonviolent actions. We’re going to take to the site.”

From there, there were a couple of actions at Seabrook in 1979 and 1980 that were not supported by the alliance — they attempted to occupy the site by going through fences, by cutting them and pulling them down, but it invited the response of the authorities to prevent the destruction of property.

BILL ABBOTT: Pilgrim 2 was announced before the utility company of New Hampshire announced Seabrook as a plant [in 1972]. Pilgrim 2 should have gone online before Seabrook [did in 1990]. Our opposition mostly took the form of trying to stop them legally. On the other hand, at Seabrook their whole approach was the Clamshell Alliance. They thought lying in the street and getting arrested would stop it. The moral of the story is that you can get a lot of good press that way, but it won’t stop a plant from being built.

PAUL GUNTER: The Clamshell Alliance had some subsequent actions following the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, but the whole issue of nuclear power was lost in the chaos [of the schism]. It brought on a hiatus in the movement until Chernobyl. Then we got involved again.

 

Boston Edison Company’s Pilgrim Station Unit 1 at Plymouth, Mass circa 1972

 

BACK IN BUSINESS (1986–1990)

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, a failed safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Soviet Union caused a huge explosion and graphite fire in one of the plant’s reactors. Unlike the United States, the Soviets didn’t house their reactors inside thick containment domes, so an enormous amount of radioactive material escaped from the plant and spread over parts of the Soviet Union and Europe.

The Soviets tried to cover up the accident, but it wasn’t long before the entire world knew what had happened. If the dormant US anti-nuclear movement needed a catalyst to get back out there and fight, this was it. And for many living on the South Shore and Cape Cod, some of whom had never given much thought to the nuclear power plant operating in their backyard, the Chernobyl accident was a wake-up call.

ELAINE DICKINSON (activist with Cape Downwinders): I didn’t pay attention to Pilgrim when it was being built even though I grew up in Weymouth, which is only about 27 miles from the plant. I grew up kind of poor, and just trying to get through college was a hard thing. I was working a part-time job and was just focused on trying to deal with myself. And then Chernobyl happened in ’86. … I remember watching those pictures on the news; Chernobyl made me look at things differently. I remember watching a program where they went back to Chernobyl and showed birth defects and the damage and all of that. And I remember my kids were watching it, and it was horrifying.

PAUL GUNTER: During the construction phase of our protests at Seabrook, we started out with the industry telling us that an accident would never happen. That of course was undercut by Three Mile Island in ’79, but clearly it was indisputable when Chernobyl blew up that nuclear power is inherently dangerous and capable of catastrophic events. The alarm was widespread and reached into the Pilgrim community.

DIANE TURCO (co-founder of Cape Downwinders): My daughter was born in 1981, and that’s when the world became very small. I got involved with the nuclear freeze movement, which was huge back then, and I heard Dr. Helen Caldicott speak with my friend Sarah Thacher — I was 27, I think, at the time. And when I moved down to the Cape, these people that I knew in the freeze movement were also talking about Pilgrim.

PAUL GUNTER: Some of the people that had been involved in the protests against Seabrook took that experience and started engaging in nonviolent direct action at Pilgrim. We participated in meetings and public education events and worked with organizers in and around the Pilgrim community. There was one group called Citizens Urging Responsible Energy (CURE), and sometime in 1986 folks with CURE and the Clamshell Alliance were arrested at the plant’s gate.

LARRY TYE (former Boston Globe reporter): It would have been about 1986, after I covered the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and switched from the medical to environmental beats [that I started writing about Pilgrim]. … I covered everything that went wrong at the plant, from safety issues to controversy over whether it ought to stay open. As I recall, for several years — in addition to my main environmental beat — I was writing a Pilgrim or Seabrook nuclear story nearly every day.

DAVID AGNEW (longtime anti-nuclear activist and co-founder of Cape Downwinders): I moved to the Cape in ’86 — my wife is a native, and her father was quite ill. … Within a month or two, I met some people who were trying to get Pilgrim closed, a group called Mass Safe Energy Alliance: Cape Cod. … I was already against nuclear power, [so] I got involved. …

I remember being impressed with the Clamshell people I met … at Pilgrim when I went to protests. They were people who had come down from New Hampshire. They were very dedicated and seemed to have a lot of integrity. … I’m not saying there weren’t differences [in our tactics], but I was aware of the similarities, not the differences.

LARRY TYE: [When I started covering Pilgrim], people weren’t doing much of the grassroots, in-the-streets anti-nuclear demonstrating at Pilgrim that they were at Seabrook … but there were groups actively opposed to Pilgrim via the courts and ballot kinds of initiatives, and there were lots of angry public officials like Ed Markey and Ted Kennedy and Attorney General Jim Shannon.

DAVID AGNEW: [In the late ’80s], we also worked on getting a citizens’ initiative referendum to close all operating commercial reactors in Massachusetts — it was called “Question 4.” I just remember working to get that ballot initiative on the statewide ballot, and we succeeded. But then we worked to try to get it passed, and we were unsuccessful in that. … It polled very well, but was defeated [in November 1988] after a big, last-minute industry publicity campaign.

LARRY TYE: While Pilgrim never got the national attention that Seabrook did, it actually was a more compelling and troublesome case because it was a much older plant, with fewer of the safety innovations built into Seabrook, and with more questions about how you ever would evacuate people from a place as crowded as Cape Cod and as near to Boston as Plymouth.

MARY LAMPERT (director of Pilgrim Watch): In the late 1980s, even though Chernobyl had recently happened, I was not at all involved in or aware of nuclear power issues. My husband is a lawyer and graduate of MIT, and the feeling in our house was of total faith in technology. We were living in Milton and decided that we wanted a change in scenery and a clean, more rural atmosphere, so we bought a house in Duxbury and moved in ’87. It’s very close to Pilgrim, about six miles away — from my study I can see the plant — but I felt we were moving to a beautiful house in a beautiful town, so what could go wrong?

Pilgrim has been racked with problems since it began operating in the 1970s. Between 1978 and ’79, there were four scrams (emergency shutdowns), one from the blizzard of 1978 and three from lightning strikes. In 1982, the NRC fined Boston Edison $550,000 for mismanagement. In 1983, the plant shut down for a year to fix a mechanical problem. The list goes on.

By 1986, after a critical piping issue forced Boston Edison to shut down the plant indefinitely, the NRC called Pilgrim ‘‘one of the worst-run’’plants in the country. Many in the anti-nuclear movement assumed Pilgrim would never operate again and that they had won their battle, but two years later, Boston Edison announced that after spending $200 million on repairs, it would restart the plant on December 30, 1988.

MARY LAMPERT: Pilgrim had been shut down for about three years and was suddenly in the news a lot. It took me about three days to realize this restart was not a good idea. I thought, “I don’t want to bring my children up in this environment,” so I immediately started taking part in activist meetings and protests.

DIANE TURCO: Governor Dukakis, Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator John Kerry, all the legislators, all the selectmen had said to the NRC, “Don’t restart.” MEMA, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said, “Don’t restart.” FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said, “Don’t restart; we’re not ready and we can’t protect the public yet.”

The NRC overruled them all.

SARAH THACHER (longtime anti-nuclear activist, member of Cape Downwinders): They were shut down and we tried to keep them shut down.

DIANE TURCO: So on New Year’s Eve, right around the restart, there was going to be a demonstration at the plant. We had people coming to our house for a party that night, so I wasn’t planning to get arrested. I was just going to be part of the demonstration. But I ended up in jail.

MARY LAMPERT: When I was arrested with the other ladies, we all wore fur coats. We dressed to kill, so we didn’t look like crazy people. … It was actually very funny, one of the best times. We used to have a lot more fun in the ’80s.

DIANE TURCO: We were on the street across from the reactor, and the police said, “Don’t cross that yellow line or you’ll be arrested.” And then one person did. And then another and another. I think 35 people crossed. When [my friend] Sarah Thacher crossed the line, I was like, “I can’t let her go by herself,” and I walked over too. I had no idea where that was going to lead. Sarah Thacher’s what got me into all of this trouble.

SARAH THACHER: We didn’t spend a night in jail or anything; it was just an evening in jail.

MARY LAMPERT: I forget who walked over [the police] line first, but a lot of us walked over. The police escorted us into a bus and an officer said to me and to some others, “Thank you for doing this because we know this place isn’t safe and we could never evacuate the people [if there was an accident].”

We went to the Plymouth jail, and then it became hysterically funny because when we checked in, they wanted your name and address and weight and age. We’re all like, “Are you kidding me? We’re not telling you how much we weigh.”

DIANE TURCO: I remember it was evening and they had the little window with the bars on it too. There were, I think, eight women in a cell, so we were just sitting there on the beds, sitting there talking. And then a man goes, “Is there a Diane Turco in here?” And I yelled, “Yes.”

“There’s a note from your husband.” And I open the note: “I’ll be at the bar down the street. Come meet me there when you’re done.”

I remember they let us out on personal recognizance [and that we wouldn’t take a plea deal]. We went to court because we wanted to acknowledge what we did and that it was important work to try to keep the reactor shut down. I think it took them three days to seat a jury in Hingham District Court, but they finally did.

Turco recalls that one of the first witnesses was one of the arresting officers at the scene that day. During cross-examination, the defense’s lawyer asked him if, as a police officer, he would be required to work and help manage any public chaos should there be an accident at Pilgrim.

DIANE TURCO: He said, “Yes.” Then our lawyer stood up and all he said was “Will you be there?” [The officer] said, “No,” and the judge goes bam with his gavel. Well, that was the end of it. The judge called all the lawyers to the sidebar, and he dismissed the case. I was so mad; I was like “Come on!” We wanted to have a trial and put the whole thing on trial — have Dukakis and Kennedy speak. We wanted to make it a big issue.

To Turco and others, the judge’s action was his way of tacitly acknowledging that he felt the plant is unsafe and shouldn’t reopen. Even so, Pilgrim continued to operate.

MARY LAMPERT: Since the plant went back online, the next thing I did was put a “For Sale” sign on our lawn. There was no way we were going to live here. Our house didn’t sell, even after we dropped the price. I would have conversations with others who were putting their houses on the market, and I can remember this friend calling and saying, “Oh, this really cute couple with two cute children came to look at the house, and I felt morally that I should say, ‘Don’t do this because there’s a reactor right here.’ ”

DIANE TURCO: After Pilgrim was restarted, a lot of people kind of gave up. … The fact that no one other than the NRC has any power to stop Pilgrim from operating was a roadblock for activism. We were floored by the lack of democratic input into the real safety concerns.

BILL ABBOTT: I wasn’t that active when we got into the ’90s [in part because] the NRC made it very difficult for citizens to intervene anymore. It became very hard to stay in a [legal] proceeding, and basically it was my conclusion that it was a complete waste of time. The rules were stacked against you. [Also], different citizens groups like Cape Cod Bay Watch and Cape Downwinders started, and I concluded I didn’t need to be out front.

DAVID AGNEW: Diane and I worked with others in the anti-Pilgrim group Safe Energy Alliance: Cape Cod [in the late 1980s]. And then for some reason or another that faded away, so we formed Citizens at Risk: Cape Cod. At some point that faded away too. I don’t quite remember what happened during the lapse, but I remember that I felt it was important to have an organization …

I had been put in touch with a fellow named John Barrows, and he made an indelible impression upon me. He’s a retired engineer, and he was the closest neighbor living to Pilgrim at the time. He was also a little bit of a weather buff and had a home weather station. He recorded the wind direction near his house for a few years and he plotted that data in a map. It was from him that I learned that some part of Cape Cod is downwind from Pilgrim more than half the time. That’s where I got the idea of calling the group Cape Downwinders.

 


 

Photo of Diane Turco and David Agnew by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

 

PART II

SHIFTING GEARS (THE ’90s)

After failing to prevent the restart, the new leaders of the anti-Pilgrim movement changed the focus of their activism. Instead of talking about the dangers of nuclear power in general, the activists “decided to be more focused on Cape Cod.” They decided to pursue two public education campaigns: getting thyroid-protecting potassium iodide pills (KI pills) publicly distributed, and expanding the emergency planning zone (EPZ).

DIANE TURCO: We needed to educate the public on the dangers of Pilgrim by making the risks real on a personal and community level. … People need to be aware that they’re at risk and it’s unacceptable, so we figured if we went with those two points, it would stir up interest in what’s going on …

At the time, people weren’t really thinking about KI. It wasn’t a big public concern, so we had to make that as part of our effort with public education. We worked on legislation to get the KI pills available here for the public in the 1990s and early 2000s.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We did a whole thing about having those pills that we would take if there was a nuclear explosion so we wouldn’t have our thyroids destroyed.

MARGARET STEVENS (activist with Cape Downwinders): We had a campaign to get people to get KI pills, and I remember we had hazmat suits and stood outside town hall with signs saying “Get your KI pills here.” We had musicians out there too.

SUSAN CARPENTER (activist with Cape Downwinders): The KI pill is to prevent one form of cancer — thyroid cancer — but it doesn’t protect against any other form. The rest of the body is completely susceptible to radiation.

MARY CONATHAN (activist with Cape Downwinders): It’s like a pacifier. It’s certainly not a long-term solution.

MARGARET STEVENS: You’d need one of those every day that you’re in the plume.

DIANE TURCO: We say, “It protects the thyroid, not the child.”

MARY CONATHAN: Our lives are in danger, but we have a pill that will protect us for a few hours. We’re just supposed to take our KI pill and go to the basement and wait.

DIANE TURCO: Still, the big thing about us getting it on the Cape is that the state acknowledges we are at risk. That’s the big thing because they kept saying, “Oh no, no, the radiation is going to be dispersed by the time it gets to the Cape. There’s no public health threat.” [If this were the case] we wouldn’t have them. But we do …

What other industry requires medication for the public in case they screw up?

In the second half of the ’90s, as a new generation of anti-Pilgrim activists came together to fight for KI pills and an EPZ expansion, Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University and former director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry, also started ringing alarms about Pilgrim.

In multiple peer-reviewed studies, he and other scientists documented elevated cancer rates near the facility.

“The closer one lived to Pilgrim, the greater the risk of cancer. The longer and closer a person has lived to Pilgrim, the greater the risk of exposure to harmful radionuclides and the greater the chance of developing radiation-linked illnesses,” Clapp writes.

According to his “Southeastern Massachusetts Health Study,” which was published in the summer of 1996 in the Archives of Environmental Health, “Adults living and working within 10 miles of Pilgrim had a fourfold increased risk of contracting leukemia between the years of 1978 and 1983 when compared with people living more than 20 miles away.”

DIANE TURCO: Dr. Helen Caldicott always goes back to — whenever I say there needs to be a study done about cancer — she says there have already been enough, it’s already documented.

In November 1998, about two years after Clapp published his study, Boston Edison announced it would sell Pilgrim to the Louisiana-based company Entergy Corporation for a mere $80 million.

“We certainly were not happy with that transfer,” Bill Abbott says, “and I remember looking into the finances of it and thinking there was some real concern with Entergy’s financial capability and background. We tried to raise the issues, but the decisions were made.”

According to the activists, not much changed after the transfer — “I don’t think I really thought much about another company coming in because it was still the same reactor and still under the NRC,” Diane Turco says. Though the attacks on September 11, 2001, raised new concerns about the threat of terrorism at nuclear power plants, the activists didn’t really go head-to-head with the new owner until a few years later.

 

Photo of protesters in 1993 courtesy of Mary Lampert

 

RE-LICENSE TO ILL (THE AUGHTS)

As the federal agency that oversees civilian nuclear power, the NRC is responsible for licensing all plants. A typical operating license is good for 40 years, though plant owners are able to apply for 20-year extensions. Pilgrim was licensed in 1972, meaning that a few years after Entergy bought the plant from Boston Edison, it needed an extension if it wanted to operate past 2012.

In January 2006, the company began the application process.

“Entergy was confident that the facts of science and engineering — in conjunction with following the regulatory process — would determine the outcome of license renewal,” says Patrick O’Brien, senior communications specialist at Entergy Pilgrim Station.

Plants all around the country have successfully applied for extensions. According to an NRC spokesperson, it usually takes about 22 months to complete the process. In the case of Pilgrim, it took six years.

MARY LAMPERT: As a citizen, you can file a request to the board that NRC has, which consists of judges and lawyers, to have a hearing. You can request to take formal part in the process by submitting various legal briefs called “contentions.”

There are only certain issues that are allowed to be litigated, and most you care about the NRC has taken off the table: emergency planning, spent fuel, health impacts. The NRC has decided they’re generic issues, so you can’t litigate them. You can, however, litigate on technical issues.

So you submit a brief to that board explaining what the contention is and what your rationale is. Each contention was 150 pages, and I had five. Then there’s a hearing before the board and questions are asked on both sides. Obviously, Entergy opposed me. The judges made a decision and accepted three of my contentions to move forward, and from there it evolved just like any legal action: hearings, multiple briefs, counter filings by Entergy and NRC. It was a three-ring circus.

I was going to have a lawyer, but she moved to Maui — “I’m sure you’ll find another lawyer,” she said. Wrong. I tried. I put ads in journals and wrote to law firms and law schools from Virginia to Maine — every frigging place I could think of. Every major law firm that does pro bono work had a potential conflict of interest, and little ones wouldn’t take it because they knew it was going to be a long and expensive thing and we probably wouldn’t win.

It was very expensive, but there wasn’t time to go out and have a fundraiser. I was trying to answer responses and move forward in this case. It was a big effort. I budget a certain amount of money that I’ll spend on this issue for the year, and I decided I was not going to spend over $20,000 of my own money. I sent out a letter to my email server list: “Here’s the situation. If anyone can contribute, that’d be great. I need experts on meteorology, pipes, etc.” One person contributed $5. I was almost like “Are you fucking kidding me?” but had to write “Oh, thank you very much, that’s very nice.”

So here I am, never having written a brief, while Entergy had their own lawyers and hired a major firm in Washington. The joke is, I’m not a lawyer but was involved in litigation, and my husband is a lawyer but wasn’t involved. One Christmas, I got [former nuclear industry executive turned anti-nuclear activist] Arnie Gundersen as a Christmas present. My husband hired him to help me, and he came to the house with a bow, which was hysterically funny…

I knew with relicensing, there was a possibility that you could wind up not winning the contention, but getting some results. For example, one of my contentions was about leaking buried pipes at Pilgrim, some of which have radioactivity in them. If they’re leaking, then the radioactivity goes into soil and will end up in Cape Cod Bay. So what we argued for was that there needed to be monitoring and soil testing. Before this was filed, there wasn’t one monitoring well, not one on that property. Because of the information I had gathered, it was brought to the attention of Deval Patrick, who put the big squeeze on Entergy. They now have 22 wells. That was an impact.

As Lampert was fighting in court on technical grounds to stop Pilgrim’s relicensing, other groups worked to highlight environmental and health concerns.

PINE DUBOIS: When we at the Jones River Watershed Association realized that they were going for relicensing, we engaged again. We started dealing with the environmental effects of Pilgrim. … We really didn’t want to see the plant relicensed because we thought it was inappropriate and contrary to both public trust and common sense. There was a lot of damage being done to Cape Cod Bay, and the monitoring had fallen off.

MEG SHEEHAN: We were concerned about the impact of the cooling water on the marine ecosystem. We had a lot of documentation about the impacts of that.

PINE DUBOIS: We started to ramp up and started the Cape Cod Bay Watch Program [to monitor and address problems with water quality and marine life in the bay].

MEG SHEEHAN: We also realized that no one had looked at the fact that Pilgrim’s Clean Water Act permit had expired. So we started digging into that regulatory stuff and went to the EPA and got records and monitoring reports. We raised a challenge — we filed a contention — with the NRC saying Pilgrim shouldn’t be relicensing until the Clean Water Act permit was renewed.

PINE DUBOIS: Their permit with the EPA was so grossly out of date.

MEG SHEEHAN: But the NRC punted to the EPA because the Clean Water Act permit was not part of the NRC license [for Pilgrim]. We sent a letter to Entergy and the EPA that we intended to sue because the permit had expired, but based on promises from the EPA that they would [look into it], we didn’t go ahead and sue.

We’ve tried to keep pressure on the EPA, but there’s still no new Clean Water Act permit; they’re operating under a permit that was granted in the 1970s when the plant went online.

DIANE TURCO: Cape Downwinders was also, of course, opposed to relicensing. … [We felt] that they were just going to relicense this reactor, that it was just kind of a rubber stamp. That’s what the NRC is, a rubber stamp machine. …

Part of our efforts was to call attention to two reports commissioned by the attorney general that were very damning about Pilgrim. … Dr. Gordon Thompson and Dr. Jan Beyea did separate studies [about the potential dangers posed by the spent fuel pools at Pilgrim], but they came to the same conclusion that it was an imminent threat to the public because it was densely packed — it wasn’t designed to do that — and that a spontaneous fire could occur.

According to Dr. Beyea’s 2006 report, a spent fuel fire could cause thousands of cancer cases, and the non-cancer-related damages could cost between $105 and $488 billion.

DIANE TURCO: During 2009, ’10, ’11, we were there writing letters to the NRC [and trying to raise awareness about health concerns], but it was not until Fukushima that people really woke up and got involved more.

 

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

 

NO ESCAPE FROM THE CAPE (2011–2012)

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and series of tsunamis wreaked havoc on eastern Japan. The earthquake knocked out power in much of the country, and the subsequent waves flooded about 217 square miles of towns and villages, killing at least 15,894 people — another 2,500 are still considered “missing.” As the government scrambled to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe, another crisis arose: The backup power systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had failed.

With a local news camera fixed on the plant, people watched the accident unfold on television screens across the world. In a matter of days, the plant suffered a series of hydrogen explosions, three reactor cores melted down, and falling water levels in the spent fuel pool sparked fear that radioactive spent fuel rods would catch fire. The Japanese government tried to downplay the severity of the accident, but the meltdown at Fukushima alarmed anti-nuclear activists worldwide. That was certainly the case in Massachusetts — Pilgrim’s GE Mark I boiling-water reactor is the same make and model as the reactors in Fukushima, after all.

DIANE TURCO: After Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, it was only a matter of time [until the next disaster]. That’s what we had been reading, and that’s why we were so concerned with Pilgrim. These aren’t fail-safe. I mean, I actually left teaching early — I retired early — after [Fukushima] happened because this work is so important. … This accident woke up a lot of folks to the dangers Pilgrim imposes to us all.

BILL MAURER (retired engineer and activist with Cape Downwinders): I knew Pilgrim was around, and I mean, I thought about it, but I didn’t think much about it all. Then when I learned about Fukushima, and learned that Pilgrim was the same reactor design, that kind of perked my ears up to see what was happening at Pilgrim. I knew people were concerned about Pilgrim, so I searched out the Cape Downwinders and got sucked in.

SUSAN CARPENTER: I happened to have the TV on when the earthquake hit, and I watched the tsunami live — the live coverage of it was the most horrendous thing I’ve ever seen. Eventually the plant [design] came into question, and I was hooked …

To think that we were dealing with the same thing here, we felt we were in real danger.

MARGARET STEVENS: I was involved with Occupy Falmouth, and when we started focusing in on Fukushima and started talking about it … that’s when I started getting interested in nuclear power. I started researching and talking about it, and the Occupy group talked me into doing a presentation. Maybe 15 people came to that first one, but people continued to be interested, so we formed a little group. There were about nine of us, I think. We called it Pilgrim Anti-Nuclear Action, or PANA. I gave another presentation and we gathered more people into our group, but after a while, after we were doing certain actions around Falmouth, we were saying, you know, we’ve got to get out and go further. We knew about Diane’s group so we started getting in touch … and merged with them.

PAUL RIFKIN (activist with Cape Downwinders): I knew Diane [Turco] from the past from anti-war activism and knew she was involved in anti-Pilgrim stuff for decades. And after Fukushima, she became [even more] energized and focused. … She was sending out emails describing the similarities in the reactors between here and what blew in Japan, and I took it to heart and started going to Cape Downwinders meetings.

 

Photo courtesy of Diane Turco

 

BILL MAURER: [At the first Cape Downwinders meeting I attended], my jaw was probably open because the problems at Pilgrim are just so glaring. Part of me said, well, sometimes activists go a little too far and embellish and add some emotion, but the more I looked at it, the more I said, “This is crazy. This is really crazy.”

DIANE TURCO: Fukushima blew away the myth that nuclear power is safe.

PATRICK O’BRIEN: While the design of Pilgrim is similar to that of Fukushima, the equipment, location, emergency response plans, and regulations governing its operations are quite different. Pilgrim is not located in a region susceptible to tsunamis or large earthquakes; it is a single-unit site with a dedicated operations and emergency response organization and has emergency equipment designed to mitigate the effects of flooding. Pilgrim operators have the training, license, and authority to take actions in the event of an actual emergency.

PAUL RIFKIN: [Prior to Fukushima], most people on the Cape — similar to where I was at previously — didn’t know there was a nuclear power plant in our neighborhood. And if they knew about it, they weren’t really concerned about it. So we decided one of the basic things we were going to attempt to do was educate the citizenry so that we could get more numbers on our side and grow as a movement. And then hopefully get the politicians to understand what we’re saying and have an impact on either the governor, whose job it is to take care of the safety of the citizens of the commonwealth, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has the mandate to protect everyone in the country from the dangers of nuclear power plants.

We had facts on our side, we had passion on our side, and we had optimism. So we started doing things, from calling community meetings to marching to going to the nuclear power plant and committing acts of civil disobedience to writing letters to the editor, contacting our congresspeople.

BILL MAURER: Then Diane got a copy of the emergency management plans from MEMA. We went through the emergency plans, and if you read in between the lines, you learned that [in the case of a severe accident at Pilgrim] the Sagamore Bridge was definitely going to be closed, and that the Bourne Bridge might be closed.

 

Photo by Miriam Wasser

 

With many new and energized members who came to the group in the aftermath of Fukushima, Cape Downwinders started a public campaign highlighting what could happen to their communities if a similar accident occurred at Pilgrim. It was an issue almost guaranteed to rile up the public because, according to the official emergency management plan drafted by MEMA in 1999, the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges — the only roadways into and out of the Cape — were going to be closed to all non-emergency outbound traffic so that people within a 10-mile radius of the plant could evacuate quickly.

PAUL RIFKIN: The state had made a policy that if there was an accident at Pilgrim, one of the first things they were going to do was close both bridges to the Cape. So we wouldn’t be able to get off the Cape! Now why were they doing that? They were doing that, they said, because they wanted the people closer to the plant to be able to escape first, meaning the people in Plymouth and the towns right around Plymouth. And if we were all driving off the Cape at the same time, we would make it more difficult for those people to get out — which is a rational and reasonable thing, except it’s not if you have grandchildren living on the Cape, or if you have property on the Cape, or if you care about not getting cancer and you live on the Cape. Then it becomes somewhat unreasonable.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We’d be trapped here if anything happens.

PAUL RIFKIN: The big thing we started saying then, one of the phrases we came up with, was “no escape from the Cape.”

DIANE TURCO: We’d have dog and pony shows everywhere, and we’d talk about “no escape from the Cape” and why Pilgrim is dangerous.

PAUL RIFKIN: One of the ideas that we came up with was to have a rally at the Sagamore Bridge on Labor Day when people are leaving the Cape.

DIANE TURCO: When the first bridge action was held [in 2011], “no escape from the Cape” was the message. We’d discussed using “Refuse to be a radiation refugee” but agreed that “no escape” was a stronger message for our group. Again, we needed people to identify with the reality that we were expendable collateral damage to the corporate profits of Entergy, and that our government — particularly MEMA — was complicit.

PAUL RIFKIN: The first “no escape from the Cape” rally was very successful. There were 120 people there. There were news teams from Boston, as well as the Cape Cod Times and local coverage, and it made quite a splash. We had a lot of people there with a lot of signs. It was a wonderful celebration of what we were doing.

DIANE TURCO: [After the protest, though], the PR person for MEMA said that the bridges would be open and that our message that the bridges would be closed “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

BILL MAURER: MEMA said it’s not true and you don’t know what you’re talking about. … So we challenged them.

DIANE TURCO: I said, OK, well, maybe I’m misinformed, but I have the 1999 plans, so tell me how I’m misinformed.

I asked for the plans from a local MEMA rep, and he said they couldn’t release them due to “sensitive information,” so then I went to the state police barracks in Bourne. I waited three hours, and [in the end] they just gave me a copy of the 1999 plans — they didn’t have an update.

I called the MEMA office and said I would file a FOIA if necessary [for the updated plans]. I can’t remember if I did file or not, but I did finally get a full copy of the plans.

PAUL RIFKIN: As it turns out, we weren’t full of shit.

DIANE TURCO: Looking through the plans, we found that the bridges are … all blocked off and they’re going to send people into Sandwich. So I’m like, wow, I wonder what the Sandwich people think about this.

I called the emergency director in Sandwich, and I said, “What are you going to do with all of these people in Sandwich?” And he said, “What are you talking about?” And I called the fire chief, the police chief — same thing. None of them knew. Bourne police didn’t know.

BILL MAURER: The emergency management director in the town of Bourne was never told any of this or given a copy of the plan. So we started talking it up with emergency managers on the Cape, and they all said, “No, it can’t be true.”

DIANE TURCO: I called George Baker, who was [then] the head of Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee. He had no idea about any plans for the Cape.

BILL MAURER: Finally we got Kurt Schwartz from MEMA to come down and explain the plans.

DIANE TURCO: The Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee held a public meeting with MEMA director Kurt Schwartz … because they wanted to know what the plan was. He said, on Cape Cod, we’re closing the Sagamore Bridge so that people in Plymouth can escape down Route 3, and if people from the Cape try to get off, they’re going to jam up the road. [He also said that] the other bridge will be closed if there is any impediment to traffic, which of course there will be. So both bridges are going to be closed, and he said people on the Cape are going to be told to shelter in place. He actually said they’ll be coming down in hazmat suits and they’re going to determine where the hot spots are, and they’re going to relocate everything living. He actually said that. And just like at Fukushima, you won’t be able to return home for a long time. That is the official state of Massachusetts plan for us.

BILL MAURER: Their jaws dropped; they couldn’t believe it. And when the emergency managers on the Cape expressed some degree of horror, no one had an answer. MEMA didn’t have an answer.

DIANE TURCO: So, bottom line, there are no plans to protect the public, only pieces of paper completed from a checklist of regulations that are meaningless.

BILL MAURER: It legitimized our concerns because prior to that, they were treating us like we were a bunch of tree-hugging hippies overreacting.

ED RUSSELL: As a lawyer, whenever we had a risk in the corporations I worked for, I would look at two things: What is the likelihood that something will go wrong, and if something goes wrong, what’s the dollar exposure, or risk, of an injury or death? If something came in with a low likelihood but a very big loss, I would say you can’t do it. … And with the Pilgrim plant, the liability is enormous. The risk is low, but the result of the potential damage is extremely high. … [The nuclear industry] says, “We’ve thought of everything and we’ve thought of it twice,” but there’s no way you can think of everything. And when you have the risk of destroying Boston, that’s not a risk you can take.

BILL MAURER: I really view it as gambling recklessly with public safety. And whether it’s because they’re making legitimate mistakes or sophomoric mistakes, or they’re doing it on purpose to save money, it bothers me. I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt for so long, but I now really think this has been a bunch of people who have been gambling recklessly with public safety for a number of years.

CHRISTOPHER BESSE (MEMA spokesman): In accordance with federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines and to keep communities safe, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency ensures the preparedness of the state and local communities to effectively respond and mitigate any impacts in the event of an incident at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, including planning, training and exercises involving the communities, Plant and state and federal agencies.

DIANE TURCO: Basically, there’s no plan for the Cape. … It’s all just a cover for Entergy … And it’s corporate profit over public safety, which is, I think, our biggest issue.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Dickinson

In March 2012, about a year after the Fukushima accident, the NRC announced that after reviewing the causes of the accident and the state of the country’s nuclear fleet, all plants must start implementing a new set of safety standards called Diverse and Flexible Coping Strategies, or “FLEX Strategies.” (Colloquially, some people call these new standards the “Fukushima fixes.”)

In mid-May, a few weeks after the FLEX announcement, residents of Plymouth voted 51 percent to 49 percent to tell the NRC to hold off on relicensing Pilgrim until all of the new requirements and upgrades were implemented. But despite this vote and Mary Lampert’s pending legal challenges, the NRC voted 3–1 to grant Entergy’s request for a 20-year extension. (The one no vote came from NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, a physicist who often clashed with industry leaders and left the commission shortly thereafter.)

MARY LAMPERT: When I lost the litigation, it was done in the sleaziest of manners. I remember thinking, “What? It’s over? We’re still filing briefs.” The contentions and the hearings had not been completed, but … the NRC declared that Entergy is the winner and the case is over. It was like calling the game in the beginning of the last inning. The chair of the NRC’s commission disagreed, but it’s majority wins.

DIANE SCRENCI (NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer): Although a new late-filed contention had been referred to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and an appeal of an ASLB decision was pending before the Commission, the Commission determined it was appropriate to issue the renewed license. The NRC staff had completed its work on the application, issuing both a safety evaluation report and an environmental impact statement, which both found it was safe for Pilgrim to operate for an extended period of time. If the renewed license had subsequently been set aside on appeal, the previous operating license would have been reinstated. For completeness, the Commission declined to revisit the ASLB decision, determining the Board had ruled appropriately. The late-filed contention was not admitted and the hearing was not reopened.

DIANE TURCO: We were all shocked that it was relicensed, but like everything else that people have tried to do though the legal process, this failed. Even Governor Patrick wrote a letter to the NRC saying please hold off on the relicensing because public safety concerns haven’t been addressed, but it was relicensed.

MEG SHEEHAN: We were unfortunately unsuccessful, but we were able to raise a lot of political awareness.

PINE DUBOIS: We took actions where we felt there were substantive reasons for concern and more caution to be exercised by the corporation Entergy. When we were not successful, it was not because we were wrong, but because the nature of the bureaucracy was such that we could not win. But we made a good fight out of it and got a lot of people thinking.

 

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

 

THE PILGRIM 14 (2012–2014)

In the spring of 2012, Cape Downwinders decided to hold a big rally near the plant on Mother’s Day. “We wanted to call attention to the Pilgrim dangers and our demand for closure,” Turco says, adding that they chose the holiday because it’s “a day of acknowledging our responsibility to protect current and future generations and the environment from the dangers of Pilgrim.” So on May 21, 2012 — coincidently just a few days before the NRC extended Pilgrim’s operating license — a large crowd gathered near the plant.

BILL MAURER: The rally was right after I started [getting involved in the anti-Pilgrim movement]. I may not even have gone to a Cape Downwinders meeting yet, but I found out that they were going to have a rally at the plant. So I went up there myself — I didn’t know anybody — and there were only a couple guys; the rest were ladies, older ladies. We looked like the garden club, a bunch of older ladies in sunhats. I mean seriously, there were no young people; it was all older retired people with time.

DIANE TURCO: We thought we would meet at the intersection of 3A and Rocky Hill Road and march toward the plant. They didn’t even let us get near it.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We marched, people made speeches — a lot of people were there. And then we were told not to cross a certain line, of course. But we had made the decision that we were going to.

PAUL RIFKIN: I’ve been arrested three times at Pilgrim [for] performing civil disobedience. Usually it’s the same thing: We go right outside the facility across the street, and we have signs and stuff, and then we cross onto the property. They had barriers, and they knew we’re coming. We tell the police we’re coming, so the Plymouth Police were there and private security for Entergy was there.

DIANE TURCO: We started walking onto the property — Entergy owns that road.

PAUL RIFKIN: We wanted to deliver a letter to the owner saying it was dangerous; we wanted to express our view. We offered it to the security people who worked there, but they wouldn’t take the letter. So we told them, “If you don’t take the letter, we’re crossing the barrier.” And the police said, “If you cross the barrier, we’re going to arrest you.”

BILL MAURER: I remember this older lady was selling T-shirts and said, “You can have it for half price if you get arrested.” I thought she was joking, but sure enough, at the end of the procession and speeches, people started crossing the police line and getting arrested. I’ve never been arrested for things like this, but I said I would do it. So I did it. The joke was that I bought the T-shirt for half price so I had to get arrested.

PAUL RIFKIN: Fourteen of us — including Diane, Bill Maurer, and Joyce — we crossed the barrier and got arrested.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We felt good about it; we were having a good time.

BILL MAURER: After they put us in jail and started processing us, a cop said to me, “You didn’t plan on getting arrested, huh?”

I said, “How did you know?”

He said, “You don’t have enough money to make bail.”

I said, “How much?” and he said, “$40.” I said, “Well, I had $40, but I spent half on a T-shirt.”

He said, “Ask your buddies [for money],” and I said, “I don’t even know these people.” Then he said, “Well, I’ll lend you the money if you need it.”

In the end, Diane and the people running the protest made sure everyone was taken care of, but I thought it was really interesting that the cop was willing to help. The police were always very professional and very nice. … I got arrested one other time, I can’t remember when — probably a little over a year after that — but that was my intro. I got to cross off one of the lines on my bucket list: getting arrested for a good cause.

JOYCE JOHNSON: It was a happy occasion because we were really glad that we were able to do it. Of course, we had to go back and forth to court several times, and that was kind of a nuisance. But we had lawyers that worked for us pro bono, and that was wonderful. To have lawyers who are willing, and believe enough in your cause to represent you for nothing, is pretty nice.

PAUL RIFKIN: [Early on], the DA said, “If you plead out now, we’ll let you off for a fine.” They don’t want to go to trial; it’s a big pain in the ass and they don’t want to give us the PR for it. It’s a game. So we kept going back, and they kept offering us this and that. A couple people ended up pleading out and paying the fine, but the rest of us didn’t want to plead out.

MARGARET STEVENS: We got wonderful notoriety after it.

PAUL RIFKIN: It was great PR. The press loved it, that we might go to jail. People would come to the courthouse with signs: “Support the Pilgrim 14.” Eventually they dismissed the case, though I didn’t want to let it go — “You can dismiss the case, but you can’t dismiss the cause,” I said.

On March 15, 2013, almost a year after the initial arrest, a Plymouth District Court judge dropped the charges. The case was over before it went to trial.

SUSAN CARPENTER: When the judge dismissed it, I was absolutely thrilled that the court didn’t issue us a stay-away order. This meant we were free to continue picketing, rallying, and doing civil disobedience. We kind of wanted a trial, but it worked out well.

PAUL RIFKIN: From the courthouse, when they dismissed us, I put it to the group: “Let’s go back and get arrested again. Let’s go back to Pilgrim and do it again.”

ELAINE DICKINSON: We were all riled up. We had all our signs and noisemakers in the car … and we went to the gates of the plant banging on drums and holding signs.

DIANE TURCO: We marched onto the property with our large banner and signs, and it took some time for Entergy security to notice.

PAUL RIFKIN: We went back and got arrested again.

 

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

 

According to newspaper reports, about 50 people drove directly to the plant from the courthouse and held a spontaneous rally. The police arrested five people, three of whom had just had trespassing charges against them dropped in the Pilgrim 14 case.

The following Mother’s Day, anti-Pilgrim activists once again gathered for a big rally at the plant. Like the year before, law enforcement told the group not to cross the police line onto private property, but 10 people ignored the warning and were arrested and booked on trespassing charges. After being released from jail, the group — which included many of the original Pilgrim 14 — once again refused to make a plea deal with the district attorney.

This time, though, they got what they wanted. The case went to trial.

The defendants called all sorts of public safety and nuclear power experts as part of their strategy to put the question of Pilgrim’s safety on trial.

DIANE TURCO: The courtroom was packed with supporters. We were very honored to represent the citizens’ concerns in a court of law. … We were all in this together and hoped that the state would understand our actions as necessary to protect our communities …

I represented myself, which meant I had an opening statement and closing statement.

From Turco’s closing statement at the trial:

The testimony we heard this week supports the ongoing serious dangers. Fire Chief Kevin Nord of Duxbury testified that in the event of accident, there is “no reasonable assurance” of public safety in his town.

When the question “Would citizens be safer if Pilgrim were closed?” was asked, Chief Nord said, “Yes.”

Dr. Richard Clapp testified from a published study in 1996 that statistically indicated cancer rates are high near Pilgrim and continue to this day. When the question “Would cancers be reduced if Pilgrim closed?” was asked, Dr. Clapp responded, “Yes.”

Dr. Gordon Thompson [said] that consequences from an accident could exceed Fukushima and would include Cape Cod and Boston. He warned of the serious danger of the spent fuel pool holding four times the amount the structure was designed to temporarily hold.

Mary Lampert testified about the futility of working within the system to affect public safety. Testimony from my beloved community of dedicated citizens expressed the real fear, the feeling of entrapment and the need to use every avenue to close Pilgrim in our efforts to protect our loved ones and beautiful Cape Cod.

DIANE TURCO: It was such an interesting trial, and the judge was so nice. She was very interested, and she let us submit testimony and speak. She allowed everyone to make a statement. It was really powerful.

Joyce Johnson, another defendant, also spoke during the trial. In describing her testimony, she refers to one of the newspaper articles she’s saved in a three-ring binder.

“This is me at the trial,” she says, pointing to a photo of her on the stand and beginning to read the article out loud.

JOYCE JOHNSON (reading from the Cape Cod Times article):

One of the more emotional moments in the four-day trial occurred when defendant Joyce Johnson took the stand. … Johnson got out a piece of paper with a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead. … ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed [Johnson begins crying] it’s the only thing that ever has.’

On March 22, after four days of testimony, Plymouth District Judge Beverly Cannone found the defendants guilty of trespassing. She sentenced them to one day in the Plymouth House of Corrections, though the punishment was symbolic because she counted their time as served.

DIANE TURCO: We got the sense that [the judge] really understood why we stepped over the line, but had to do her job within its confines. … I think she had tears in her eyes when she said we were guilty.

After the trial, Cape Downwinders planned another protest for Mother’s Day 2014.

DIANE TURCO: We met at St. Catherine’s Chapel Park and had a really good march to the plant — we had big puppets and music and everything.

SUSAN CARPENTER: The demonstration was really neat because we had pansies — that’s what a plant is supposed to be, not a nuclear plant.

When we got to the reactor, we had a little vigil there, and [longtime anti-nuclear activist] Sarah Thacher read a statement:

This Mother’s Day action is an expression of our rage against a polluting nuclear reactor and our love for all children. … We are here to put our bodies on the line with an apology that we didn’t understand earlier about this evil that is being perpetrated on our children and generations to come.

After the vigil, as in years past, some of the protesters crossed the police line onto Entergy’s property.

DIANE TURCO: Four of us — Sarah, Susan, Mary and me — walked across the street to start planting pansies, and we were arrested. … We were going to plant flowers and reclaim the land for our children and future generations on the property.

SUSAN CARPENTER: We planned to get arrested. We thought more people would get arrested, but it turned out to only be four of us.

DIANE TURCO: We were in the police transport van when we realized we’re all grandmothers — it was going to be a grandmothers’ trial!

SUSAN CARPENTER: It made the PR better.

After being arrested on May 11, 2014, the four grandmothers refused to take a plea bargain. Their trial, which began in October 2014, included expert testimony from Dr. Helen Caldicott.

SUSAN CARPENTER: That trial was kind of a disaster because of the attorney. We had two pro bono attorneys, and one of them lost his partner right before the trial. But the one who did represent us didn’t submit the right paperwork. Helen Caldicott was coming to testify, but she was disqualified [because the judge ruled her testimony would be speculative]. The headline the next day was “Judge Snubs Expert Witness.”

DIANE TURCO: Helen was only going to be here for the day, and she said, “I can’t come back [to testify later].”

MARY CONATHAN: We almost didn’t get Helen Caldicott.

The following week, though, Judge James Sullivan reversed his original ruling.

SUSAN CARPENTER: So Helen came back and did testify. She talked about the fact that Pilgrim was an imminent threat as well as the dangers it posed.

DIANE TURCO: She was wonderful.

An article in the Cape Cod Times quotes Caldicott as saying, “If I had young children, I would not live on the Cape. … And if I was a pediatrician here, I would advise parents to leave. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Despite an all-star cast of witnesses, on October 23, 2014, the court found the four grandmothers guilty of trespassing. They were charged a fine and given a year of probation.

 

 

PART III + EPILOGUE

A NEW INITIATIVE

Beyond the protests and court cases, Cape Downwinders and other activists in the area worked on finding more ways to spread their message and shut down Pilgrim. In 2013, the group got all 15 towns on the Cape to vote on a non-binding public advisory calling on then-Governor Deval Patrick to demand that the NRC close Pilgrim. It passed in every town, but the governor remained silent on the issue.

DIANE TURCO: After every town voted for the governor to call for the closure of Pilgrim, we contacted him for months and months, since it was directed at him. But we never got a reply from him, so we ended up, almost a year later, renting a bus and going to the State House.

We packed the Gardner Auditorium for two and a half hours. People stood up and spoke out: “Wake up, Governor!” There were people there from Provincetown to Truro to Eastham, and then Boston people and South Shore people, little kids, grandmothers, people from all walks of life. We called it a “speak-out at the State House,” and we’ve done four or five others since then.

SUSAN CARPENTER: Quite a few political representatives from the Cape were there, as well as people from different activist groups and scientists. We also had a doctor who had done a study on radiation.

 

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

 

DIANE TURCO: After the speak-out, we all marched up to the governor’s office and said, “We want an answer.” His staff said, “We’ll set up a meeting with you.”

We said, “No, no, no, we’re not leaving until we get an answer from the governor.”

We stayed for maybe two hours, and then finally — they knew we weren’t leaving — he just happened to be in his office. They said one person can go in to talk to the governor, and I go, “I’ll go!”

I went in — and he was busy and putting his coat on and everything — and then he turns to me and goes, “So what’s this all about?”

And I said [pointing my finger in his face], “You know what this is all about!” He was kind about it, but I said, “This is all serious. Your people are keeping us trapped, and that’s unacceptable.”

We had a little conversation and he said, “Write a letter and I’ll send it out to the NRC.”

He did send a letter saying Pilgrim needs to shut it down if it’s not safe, and the NRC responded that [the state] was responsible for public safety outside of the plant property. So there you have it; the state is responsible. And they can’t tell us we’re acceptable collateral damage — that’s not acceptable.

PAUL RIFKIN: Everyone assumes that we’re being taken care of, that we don’t know anything as individual citizens, and that Daddy is going to take care of us. Daddy being the Congress, or the president, or the newspapers or the police. They’re all going to take care of us; therefore, we just have to go about our business — and in Cape Cod, put our heads in the sand — because everything’s fine, it’s all being taken care of. It’s not though.

DIANE TURCO: If our government, our legislature, isn’t going to speak up for our safety, we need to keep pressuring them to do so because it’s their responsibility. They have a moral responsibility to protect the people of Massachusetts.

From the earliest days of Pilgrim’s operation, anti-nuclear activists have voiced concerns about the plant’s safety. After Fukushima, however, their worries seemed to take on a new legitimacy — and not just because the two plants used the same reactor design. Beginning in 2012, right after the NRC renewed Pilgrim’s license, the plant, in the words of Turco, “was just starting to decline.” From emergency shutdowns called “scrams” to labor disputes and issues with critical infrastructure, Pilgrim seemed to experience one problem after another.

BILL MAURER: Early on, I just listened to what people were saying [about Pilgrim’s problems] in the Cape Downwinders meetings. … But then I started reading reports from the NRC whenever they inspected the plant. It just kept getting worse and worse. They had a number of emergency shutdowns with the same pieces of equipment breaking down.

SUSAN CARPENTER: It seemed like every other day there was a new problem. They had scrams, violations, things that kept making the front page of the Cape Cod Times. There was a lot of denial of the dangers by both Entergy and the NRC. No matter what happened, it was always “There’s no threat to the public.” Just the same words over and over.

MARY CONATHAN: I work in real estate. I couldn’t look people in the eye and sell them real estate near Pilgrim.

PAUL RIFKIN: I am always aware that as the plant gets older the dangers of something going wrong increase. Pilgrim began generating electricity in 1972. Many pipes and wires are buried underground. Decaying infrastructure, a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, human error, a terrorist attack, etc., could cause a release of radioactive toxins that could be a monumental disaster for millions of people.

DIANE TURCO: To watch the safety rating of Pilgrim plummet on a downward trend documented by the NRC, without a rise in concern, was very alarming. Pilgrim is a nuclear power plant that threatens our communities, not a candy factory.

PINE DUBOIS: It’s like a rotting bolt in your car engine. Once it breaks, it’s done, and it just becomes a question of whether you stop dead in the middle of the road or your car explodes.

PATRICK O’BRIEN (Entergy spokesman): Entergy has invested over $650 million in Pilgrim since it purchased the plant in 1999. That includes a $60 million investment just this past spring during our most recent refueling outage. Entergy has not and will not compromise safety or safe operations. Entergy has made the proper investments into the equipment and programs at the site.

In the midst of these mounting issues, Bill Maurer noticed another problematic pattern at Pilgrim.

BILL MAURER: I reviewed the NRC Event Notification Reports and made a schedule of the switchyard failures … and I found out that the electrical switchyard, which is where energy comes into the plant and leaves the plant, was ground to a fault eight times in blizzards since 1978.

DIANE TURCO: Bill found out that the switchyard there has been failing since the ’70s and it’s never been fixed.

BILL MAURER: The switchyard equipment ground faults during blizzards when snow and ice build up on the equipment. … You know when you blow a fuse in your house? That’s a ground fault. First there’s a big variation in electricity that blows the big fuses on the switchyard.

If something goes wrong and the plant loses external power, control rods made from boron will automatically drop into the reactor to stop nuclear fission. This emergency shutdown process, which is called a “scram,” is considered less safe — and therefore less ideal — than the slower process of a manual shutdown.

MARY CONATHAN: The switchyard has been a real problem. It keeps breaking down, and their fixes are just duct tape and wire.

DIANE TURCO: When there’s an automatic scram, that’s when it’s dangerous.

BILL MAURER: We kept asking them to preemptively shut down before blizzards for many blizzards. They ignored us.

 

Photo by Miriam Wasser

 

SCRAM!

In late January 2015, with a powerful nor’easter barreling toward the East Coast, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a statewide travel ban and warned everyone to prepare for a massive blizzard. Knowing that Pilgrim often had problems during severe weather incidents, and fearing the worst, Cape Downwinders pleaded with Entergy, MEMA, and the NRC to shut down the plant ahead of the storm.

SUSAN CARPENTER: The equipment there wasn’t working as it is supposed to … so we campaigned for them to preemptively shut down.

BILL MAURER: But they refused.

ELAINE DICKINSON: Governor Charlie Baker [said], “Oh, everybody, close the schools and stay off the roads,” and blah, blah, blah. So it was even more urgent to shut down Pilgrim, because how would they evacuate the town of Plymouth in the middle of a blizzard?

DIANE TURCO: Cape Downwinders wrote a letter to the NRC saying please shut down Pilgrim before the storm. The response was “We have NRC inspectors on site and everything will be fine.”

BILL MAURER: We said, “Why aren’t you shutting down the plant preemptively since you know you have a weakness? For public safety reasons, if you know it’s going to scram, or you think it’s going to scram, let’s err on the side of safety.”

ELAINE DICKINSON: And then it scrammed, and it was like “We told you so.”

After the scram, which the Union of Concerned Scientists labeled a “near miss,” it took Entergy 11 days to get the plant back up and running. In an op-ed for Wicked Local, Maurer and Sheehan wrote: “Pilgrim was no sooner coming back online when winter storm Neptune hit on Valentine’s Day. This time, Entergy shut down Pilgrim as a ‘precautionary’ measure — an explicit acknowledgement that public safety would be at risk if there was another emergency at Pilgrim.”

After the storm, the NRC dispatched a special inspection team to Pilgrim to look into the scram. The inspectors found eight federal safety violations.

BILL MAURER: I’m sure it was obvious to everyone that the plant could scram and that the prudent thing to do would have been to shut the plant down. We confronted MEMA about this … and MEMA finally, reluctantly, admitted that maybe we need to take a look at the emergency plans for a blizzard. But what ended up happening was that MEMA and the NRC just asked Entergy to put a protocol into their severe weather planning that would include shutting the plant down in advance of a historic storm.

DIANE TURCO: Now a preemptive shutdown is informally part of their severe winter weather protocol when blizzard warnings are issued by the National Weather Service, [but] is there any indication that the company would shut down the plant ahead of another big storm should one hit this winter? Even if blizzard warnings are issued by the National Weather Service, it’s still at their discretion.

PATRICK O’BRIEN (Entergy spokesman): Pilgrim instituted more conservative storm protocols that look at weather conditions, especially those that might cause a loss of offsite power (e.g., predictions of icing, high winds) that would prevent us from delivering electricity to the grid or receiving electricity to maintain safe operations. If weather forecasts and conditions meet the established criteria, Pilgrim operators will make the conservative decision to take the plant offline manually to prevent an unplanned shutdown. The most recent storm shutdown under this new protocol occurred February 9, 2017. …

The switchyard is part of the [North American Electric Reliability Corporation]-regulated electrical infrastructure in southeastern Massachusetts, which ensures the proper maintenance of the equipment. Entergy has put in place a regular maintenance program for the switchyard that is scheduled during our plant outages, in coordination with the grid operator. Events affecting the switchyard which had a corresponding impact on the operation of the plant were either severe weather-related or off-site.

DIANE TURCO: I called the NRC before [the storm] and they said don’t worry because there are two NRC inspectors on-site. But those inspectors didn’t prevent a scram. And the NRC can’t prevent an accident. … [After the storm], I sent an email to the NRC saying, “If something did happen, how were you going to evacuate Plymouth? It was a blizzard. The governor had called for a travel ban; the roads were impassable.”

They said, “The emergency directors in the area told us that we could evacuate their towns.”

And I’m thinking, well, that doesn’t make sense. So we filed a petition with the NRC and they dismissed it.

Still reeling from the reaction to the scram during the January storm, Cape Downwinders began preparing for their annual Mother’s Day event. Getting arrested was out of the question for Diane Turco and the others who were on probation after the previous year’s arrests, but plans for a rally went ahead anyway.

PAUL RIFKIN: There were probably 30 people at the rally, and we had chanting, and we had hand-holding and kumbaya singing and all kinds of lovely things like that, and we were real proud of ourselves for being there. And then we took a little walk to the nuclear power plant, and the same rigmarole: If you cross over …

ELAINE DICKINSON: There were four of us, two from Occupy Hingham and two of us from Cape Downwinders, who were planning to cross the line. It was a hot day, and the woman [from Occupy Hingham, Clare Stella] had some sort of a health condition. I crossed the line, and then Paul crossed the line and came in the paddy wagon with me. We kept waiting for these other two, but what I found out later was that because they had been in the sun for so long, she fainted. She was taken away in an ambulance, and her husband [Robert Miles] went with her.

Paul Rifkin and Elaine Dickinson were booked in the local jail and charged with misdemeanor trespassing. As usual, the state offered a plea bargain. Though going to trial would have been ideal, Dickinson decided to take the offer — a $650 fine — for “personal reasons.” Rifkin, meanwhile, refused.

PAUL RIFKIN: They told me that if I didn’t plead out, because it was my third arrest and they were getting tired of it, that if I go to trial and am found guilty, that they were going to put me in jail for 30 days. … My lawyers were saying to plead out, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t go through all that trouble to plead out. … I said, “I want a trial, your honor. I don’t want to plead out. I’m not guilty.”

With Rifkin refusing to take a plea bargain, the state had no choice but to go to trial.

PAUL RIFKIN: I used the necessity defense: We were breaking the law because what we were demonstrating was something more important than the law. In other words, the danger from the plant was greater than our going and crossing onto some private property.

But the jury didn’t buy it.

PAUL RIFKIN: When the jury came back, they found me guilty [of trespassing]. … The judge asked the ADA what they thought my punishment should be, and she said that the state suggests 10 days in jail and that I can’t go back to Pilgrim for a year.

And then the judge asked me what I thought my punishment should be, and I said, “What about community service?”

The judge thought about it for a couple of minutes. Then he said, “Mr. Rifkin, you’re going to have to do 24 hours of community service. And I’m going to disagree with the district attorney; I want you to go back to Pilgrim, and I want you to demonstrate … just don’t get arrested.”

The NRC inspects nuclear power plants every few months and regularly ranks their overall safety and operations. Plants are scored on a scale of 1 to 5–1 means the plant is safe and 5 means it must immediately shut down because it’s too dangerous to operate. Most plants are always in category 1, and for most of Pilgrim’s history, that’s where it’s been.

However, as mentioned above, beginning sometime in 2012, something seemed to change. Suddenly, there were multiple emergency shutdowns and NRC inspections began turning up a variety of safety problems. According to the NRC, the issues were so frequent and so severe that despite Entergy’s efforts to correct them, the agency officially downgraded Pilgrim to category 4 in September 2015.

“I was shocked to think they weren’t going up. Column three is pretty low — I mean, how much lower can you go? How many problems are there that we don’t know about?” says anti-Pilgrim activist Margaret Stevens.

“Pilgrim was placed in Column 4 of the NRC Reactor Oversight Program as a result of four automatic shutdowns in 2013 and an inspection finding in 2015 related to a safety relief valve,” says Entergy spokesman Patrick O’Brien, adding that after the downgrade, “Pilgrim instituted a corrective action plan [and] underwent follow-up NRC inspections.”

To make matters worse for Entergy, the relatively cheap price of natural gas was making it a lot harder to turn a profit with nuclear power. (This is a problem for nuclear operators nationwide; five plants have closed since 2013, and many more seem likely to do so in the near future.)

After a few weeks of bad press and public outcry about the plant’s downgrade, Entergy announced it would close the plant by June 2019.

PAUL RIFKIN: I was the first person in Cape Downwinders to learn that Entergy was going to close the plant in 2019 — a customer in a restaurant I owned at the time gave me the information confidentially, so I immediately passed it along to everyone I could. Loose lips sink ships and I was certainly anxious to sink Pilgrim. …

I remember being both very pleased about the closure and very unhappy about the date of closure.

SUSAN CARPENTER: I think my first thought was “Why not now?” And then I started worrying about how they were going to do it. It was kind of a mixture of relief and horror.

DIANE TURCO: When I first heard the news that Pilgrim was closing, for 10 seconds I was so, so excited. Then I heard in 2019. Three years to go when the dangers were imminent?

MARGARET STEVENS: We thought [2019] was better than 2032, but we worried instantly that they’re just going to shut down the plant and get out of there. We worried that they wouldn’t spend the money.

BILL MAURER: I’ve challenged the NRC about it: “You’re saying you can turn their behavior around? What makes you think you can turn things around with a lame-duck operator who will probably spend as little money as possible?” They just say, “Well, we know it’s a problem, but it’s not a safety risk.” They go into NRC speak. It’s very frustrating.

DIANE SCRENCI (NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer): The agency is charged by Congress with regulating the commercial nuclear industry. It’s our only responsibility and one we take seriously. At each of the nation’s nuclear power plants, we conduct a rigorous inspection and oversight program that entails thousands of hours of inspection annually. We routinely assess performance at the sites and require operators to address issues before they become more serious. Should there be any question about the ability of a company to safely operate a plant, we have a variety of tools at our disposal, up to and including a shutdown order.

BILL MAURER: Pilgrim is one of the three worst-performing reactors in the country; all three are owned by Entergy. No other owner-operators have a plant in Column 4, which is the lowest safety rating you can have without being forced to shut down. Entergy stands out from the rest of the crowd for being the worst owner-operator in the country.

DIANE TURCO: Entergy won’t put capital into a dying reactor. It’s all about the money and profit, not safety. So if they are shutting down now because they don’t want to pay for improvements, we are in trouble.

Anti-Pilgrim activists have tried to get their elected state and federal officials to pass legislation that increases safety or calls for the plant’s immediate shutdown for decades. Over the years, some politicians have been outspokenly critical of the plant, but most have stopped short of demanding the NRC revoke its operating license and shut it down.

BILL ABBOTT: It’s hard to get traction in Boston because people feel Plymouth is sort of out of sight, out of mind, and they don’t realize that if there’s an accident it will affect the whole South Shore. The elected officials who have been helpful are few and far between; you could count them on one hand.

MARY LAMPERT: You come to Massachusetts and you wouldn’t expect to find the worst reactor in the country. You wouldn’t expect to find a silent governor and legislature. Massachusetts is very funny in a way because the state is out of sync with what we send to the federal government.

DIANE TURCO: Senator Barbara Boxer once said [to the NRC about nuclear safety], “This is not hyperbole; this is life and death for my people.” We need our elected officials to do the same thing. Why they’re all hedging is a mystery.

ELAINE DICKINSON: The governor is closing his eyes and not paying attention to us. He wants us to meet with his energy spokesman, but this isn’t an energy issue; it’s a public safety issue. I don’t know what we have to do to get him to pay attention.

DIANE TURCO: We’ve been at the State House a lot; we’ve been really trying to put a lot of pressure on Boston. We’ve sent letters, documents, and reports because the situation is so bad. And they’ve called for meetings — they recognized the danger — but then they say we need more oversight [from the NRC]. … There was a scram on September 6, [2016], so on September 9 we came up with a letter demanding [Baker] call for the immediate shutdown of Pilgrim.

We stayed in his office and said we’re not leaving until we get a statement from the governor.

ELAINE DICKINSON: “Well, the governor isn’t even here,” [they told us].

DIANE TURCO: We were like “We’re not leaving. We’re not here to get arrested; we’re here to get the governor to do something.”

MARY CONATHAN: While we were still in the office, the chief of staff came in and said, “Get out of my office.” She was furious with us. And we said we’re not going. She carried on for a while, and they knew that we were trying to get publicity for the cause, but they kept saying, “You’re not going to get any.” I mean, they were determined that we weren’t going to get any attention.

DIANE TURCO: So by 7:30, it was dark and there were a lot of big state police troopers. At first they said, “We’re going to take you to the South Boston station, and it’s not very nice there, and blah, blah, blah.”

MARY CONATHAN: “Rats, drug addicts …”

DIANE TURCO: Mary’s face turned white when they said that.

MARY CONATHAN: I said, “Diane, let’s go home.” But she said, “We’re staying.”

“I guess if you’re staying, I’m staying,” I said.

Diane, Mary, and another protester, Doug Long, were handcuffed and arrested.

DIANE TURCO: We were arrested at 7:30 at night, and they had turned off all the lights; they didn’t want anyone to know.

MARY CONATHAN: I’m thinking, why didn’t the press come?

 

Photo by Miriam Wasser

 

CHAIN REACTION

Back at the plant, Entergy vowed to fix the myriad problems that had landed it in Column 4. To get out of this category, a plant must pass a comprehensive three-part investigation by the NRC called a 95003 inspection. Entergy completed the first part of the inspection in January 2016, the second part in April 2016, and then in September 2016 — about a year after the downgrade — asked for the third and final portion of the inspection. Few in the anti-Pilgrim camp believed it was possible that the plant was ready, but sure enough, NRC officials arrived on site in November 2016.

The NRC’s plan was to conduct the inspection and release an official report in the spring of 2017, but on December 6, NRC inspector Don Jackson accidentally forwarded an internal (and rather damning) email to Diane Turco.

Turco, who happened to check her email while out grocery shopping, wasn’t particularly alarmed to see an email from the NRC — “I am on their email list to get any reports or documents on Pilgrim,” she says — but she quickly noticed something odd about it.

DIANE TURCO: I was just scanning it to see what was up and noticed it was conversational in tone, not like the official reports sent out to the public. It was about the inspection team. I could see there were some concerns raised. I looked at who it was sent to and saw a list of NRC folks and my name in the middle of it all.

My phone was on the last bar and almost out of battery, so I thought I better get it off my phone before it died or they realized that they sent it to me. I checked the bottom to make sure there was no confidentiality statement there, [and seeing none] I sent it right off to Christine Legere at the Cape Cod Times. Then my phone died. I didn’t get to read it until I got home.

SUSAN CARPENTER: Diane had just forwarded it to Christine Legere at the paper, and I was at home when she called and told me about it. It was like manna from heaven.

MARGARET STEVENS: We knew [the situation at] Pilgrim was bad, but it was great to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

DIANE TURCO: The email said Entergy hadn’t completed the corrective action plans … and that the workers were overwhelmed just operating the plant. You don’t want to use the word “overwhelmed” when you’re talking about nuclear power.

SUSAN CARPENTER: It talked about the fact that there was not a culture of safety at the plant and that the staff wasn’t up to what it supposed to be doing. It was really a terrible report that said all of the things we suspected. People that I know were horrified.

MARY CONATHAN: I was in Florida at the time, and when I learned about it, I cheered, I danced in a circle. I was thinking, “This is it. It’s over.” … I remember reading the email out loud to my husband — he’s passionate about Pilgrim too — and both of us thought, “Well, what more can they say about it? They have to close it.”

The Cape Cod Times published an article titled “NRC Email: Pilgrim Plant ‘Overwhelmed’” later that night, writing: “On Jackson’s list of findings to date are failure of plant workers to follow established industry procedures, broken equipment that never gets properly fixed, lack of required expertise among plant experts, failure of some staff to understand their roles and responsibilities, and a team of employees who appear to be struggling with keeping the nuclear plant running.”

The email itself, which was included in the article, is full of technical language, but some of the more scathing passages include:

*The Safety Culture Group is hearing that people are happy and working to improve the site (Exception- Security). The observation of actual performance however is somewhat disjointed. It appears that many staff across the site may not have the standards to know what “good” actually is. There is a lot of positive energy, but no one seems to know what to do with it, to improve performance, leading to procedural non-compliances, poor maintenance, poor engineering practices, and equipment reliability problems.

*The [Employee Concerns Program] Manager has not completed the Entergy qualification program. This seems strange for a Column 4 plant where Safety Culture is a fundamental problem area.

*The licensee staff seems to say the right things, and they are genuinely energized about improving. We believe that there are some incremental improvements that look bigger than they actually are to the licensee staff. The corrective actions in the recovery plan seem to have been hastily developed and implemented, and some have been circumvented as they were deemed too hard to complete. We are observing current indications of a safety culture problem that a bunch of talking probably won’t fix.

PAUL RIFKIN: The electronic missive documented many safety concerns that had been discovered by the NRC, and when this was reported in the Cape Cod Times, many of us hoped this might be the final straw.

DIANE TURCO: After Christine’s article, I think everyone was very excited — finally the truth came out. We thought, “This is the truth. How can the NRC turn this around and make it look like Pilgrim can continue to operate?”

Legere also wrote that “NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan dodged the issues listed in the email [when asked for comment], saying it was still in the early stages of this final inspection at Pilgrim.”

PAUL RIFKIN: The incident shined a bright light on the poorly run Pilgrim plant and the incompetence of the NRC, but, alas, it became buried in the sand as the NRC stated that what Diane received was just a preliminary report and nothing changed for the better.

SUSAN CARPENTER: [The NRC’s response] was mainly stressing the fact that it was a preliminary report and that we shouldn’t put a lot of stock into it. They really dismissed it.

DIANE TURCO: People were appalled and were calling for our elected officials to do something.

On Jan. 4, 2017, a long list of local politicians wrote a letter to the NRC requesting that the agency hold a public meeting “as soon as possible to answer the public’s questions about the safety of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant.” Signatories of the letter included U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, all nine U.S. Representatives, Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and 13 state legislators.

Noting Entergy’s promises to “return to industry excellence,” the letter suggested that “the Company is quite clearly not working hard enough. In fact, Entergy was forced to shut the plant down again on December 15, 2016, when it discovered leaks in three of the eight main steam isolation valves, which are used to prevent radioactivity from leaking into the environment during a nuclear accident. These events, of course, do not signify ‘a return to industry excellence.’”

After receiving the letter, the NRC announced it would hold a public meeting on Jan. 31, 2017, in the ballroom of Hotel 1620 in Plymouth.

“I want to talk a little bit about the email,” Don Jackson told the crowd. “There’s not a process for putting what’s called pre-decisional information out in a public venue. And we try not to do that because it’s not been fully reviewed and completed. What that email was, was a certain snapshot of a point in time at the end of one week of the inspection.”

The meeting lasted about three hours, and by the end, those calling for Pilgrim to be shut down appeared deflated. The NRC’s inspection, which was technically still ongoing, would continue, and the public could expect to read the agency’s final report a few months later.

SUSAN CARPENTER: Quite a few people showed up, and the NRC had an answer for everything as far as not committing and not doing anything.

DIANE TURCO: What Don Jackson said about the safety culture at Pilgrim was what was most shocking to me in the email, and then at the meeting, he said it takes three to five years for a safety culture to turn around [at a nuclear power plant]. Pilgrim is closing in two years. … I went from feeling very excited that the truth is out and they’re going to shut it down to “Oh my God, they are really going to let it continue to operate.”

MARY CONATHAN: We kept waiting to be told that the end was around the corner [but] the NRC [officials only] defended themselves. And that was the end of it because as far as they were concerned, they justified keeping it open. I still cannot believe it.

DIANE TURCO: The takeaway was that the NRC recognizes and documents federal safety violations, they cite Entergy, and then they call it a day. There are no consequences. Entergy has no incentive to improve because all they get are more paper violations and citations.

The NRC holds an annual public meeting in every community where there is a nuclear power plant, and so in late March, the public got another chance to confront the agency about problems at Pilgrim. What made this meeting notable — aside from the yellow “crime scene” tape Cape Downwinders put up in the front of the room — was that for the first time, a large group of elected officials publicly called for Pilgrim to be closed.

MARY CONATHAN: We filled the place and people took turns speaking, including representatives from the Cape. They said, “We want this closed, and we want this closed now.”

ELAINE DICKINSON: The entire Cape delegation was there, and we were happy to hear them make a statement that the plant needs to close. They all stood together at the microphone and told the NRC that.

MARY CONATHAN: But the NRC defended the fact that they were allowing Pilgrim to stay open after an inspector said there was a safety culture problem.

DIANE TURCO: In March at the annual meeting, the NRC came and again said, “Well, we found this, and we found that.” They cited all these problems, and then just said they’re going to keep an eye on Pilgrim.

SUSAN CARPENTER: Our local representatives, our state senators and Cape delegates, are all very supportive … and we’ve had really good support from Dan Wolf, the former senator. Unfortunately, the governor has not been responsive, and Representative Keating won’t say to shut it down. Neither will Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. … They have expressed concerns, but nothing that we can hold them to. They use weasel words.

After the January and March meetings, the NRC finished the 95003 inspection and published its final report in May. Despite the problemsPilgrim experienced with flooding and its cooling system in the interim, the NRC decided not to downgrade Pilgrim into Column 5.

In the 230-page report, the agency highlighted many ongoing safety problems and concerns at Pilgrim, but still concluded “that programs and processes at [Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station] adequately support nuclear safety and that PNPS should remain in Column 4.”

DIANE TURCO: When the NRC decided that the recommendation would be that Entergy would not be moved out of Column 4, a lot of people felt that now we just have to wait for an accident for Pilgrim to be shut down. It’s been very discouraging for so many people because that seems to be the case …

The NRC isn’t going to do anything, and apparently neither is Governor Baker, AG Maura Healey, and Senators Warren and Markey. They wrote a letter in January saying they wanted a meeting, and then after that they never really did anything. … That letter is signed by all of them. Why won’t they say that the operating license should be revoked? Why don’t they have the moral authority to do it?

[At this point,] if something happens at Pilgrim, it won’t be an accident because there have been too many warnings. That’s not an accident; that’s a catastrophe.

 

THE FIX

In their January letter to the NRC, the 26 Massachusetts politicians expressed concern about Entergy’s requests for extensions on implementing a few specific post-Fukushima safety upgrades:

At the same time that the plant continues to experience safety-related problems, Entergy has asked the NRC to effectively exempt the company from Commission requirements to make plant modifications based on lessons learned from the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. While Entergy has proposed alternative approaches for meeting some of the requirements, in light of the concerns raised in the December 6, 2016 e-mail and the on-going operational issues at Pilgrim, the NRC should not exempt Entergy from any safety-related requirements.

Of particular concern was Entergy’s request to postpone installing hardened vents. In the case of a severe accident, these vents would help relieve pressure in the containment structure, which in turn would help prevent explosions and a radiation release like that which occurred at Fukushima. According to the NRC, a hardened vent “not only helps preserve the integrity of the containment building, but can also help delay reactor core damage or melting.”

Those critical of Pilgrim saw the extension requests as a play by Entergy to get around spending millions of dollars on Pilgrim two years before shutting it down. In other words, say the activists, these weren’t requests for extensions so much as requests for exemptions because the implementation deadline was after 2019.

Yet despite the public outcry about the proposed extensions, the NRC approved Entergy’s requests in April 2017.

MARY CONATHAN: They were told to fix the vents after Fukushima, but they didn’t. The NRC just continues to extend [deadlines] and issue more warnings. It’s incredibly frustrating.

SUSAN CARPENTER: They didn’t want to put the money into it; that’s the basic reason.

MARY LAMBERT: [By granting the extension,] the NRC is allowing reactors like Pilgrim to say, “Why make the investment to meet the post-Fukushima requirements when we only have a few years left on our license?”

BILL MAURER: [The hardened vents are critically important because] the thing about the Mark 1 boiling-water reactor is that the containment system to hold the pressure was under-designed to begin with in the 1960s and ’70s when GE was first building them.

[In 1976], three GE engineers [who worked in San Jose, CA] quit because they had a big problem with the Mark 1 reactor’s containment design. …What happened at Fukushima just fulfilled the prediction of those three engineers, that the containment was too small and that if the pressure builds there will be an explosion. Fukushima wasn’t a one-off; it was a prediction that became fulfilled.

The NRC’s post-Fukushima requirement covered all sorts of fixes beyond installing hardened vents in plants like Pilgrim. Many of the new rules concerned emergency backup systems that would automatically kick in should things fail in unpredictable ways.

MEG SHEEHAN: Following Fukushima, the NRC required reactors to put in place emergency backup systems. One of the things that Entergy proposed doing was to put a mooring system in the harbor that would have a temporary submersible pump [to get cooling water to the plant] in case the [main] cooling system failed.

PINE DUBOIS: We challenged the method that they chose to protect the community against a spent fuel fire. Their plan was to put some buoys out and drive a tractor down to the water and hook up a fire hose. It’s a stupid idea. And if there’s a storm, it will be impossible.

MEG SHEEHAN: We felt that would not be an adequate solution, so we challenged the state permit that they were required to get and had a hearing in town.

PINE DUBOIS: There was a state permit that was required from the Department of Environmental Protection, and so we were trying to get the state to really deal with the reality and practicality of the plan. We wanted them to say this was a stupid plan and make [Entergy] do something that will really work.

We were not successful, though we came close. The judge’s ruling acknowledged that we had a decent case and that we had a lot of good points and standing, but he wasn’t going to trump DEP.

MEG SHEEHAN: After the state granted the permit, we challenged that too. Although the judge granted standing to us, and said that, yes, it would cause catastrophic impact on fish and water in the bay if the system didn’t work, the judge had found that the system was properly designed and adequate according to the state standards. To put a mooring in tidelands, you have to follow certain design requirements, and the judge found that was adequate.

A few days after the NRC granted the extensions, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Bill Keating held a big public event at Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans. Most of the evening was spent discussing President Donald Trump, but at one point, Cape Downwinders member Elaine Dickinson stood up to make a statement about Pilgrim.

ELAINE DICKINSON: The auditorium was filled, but I had gotten there early and got a seat in the second row. I had some signs — little 8×10 printouts that said “Close Pilgrim Now.” I got up to the microphone — I think I was the second speaker — and made a short statement:

As a citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a resident of Cape Cod, as well as a member of the Cape Downwinders, I want to thank you, Senator Markey and Congressman Keating, for your repeated leadership in criticizing the NRC and Entergy for their failure to uphold their mandate to protect people and the environment.

Just this week you have also written to complain to the NRC about their decision to exempt Entergy from the safety requirements following the Fukushima nuclear disaster — the same Mark I reactor as Pilgrim. You pointed out that with the expected closure of the plant in 2019, the NRC promised that it would hold Entergy responsible for running the plant as safely as possible …

At a March 21 meeting with the NRC in Plymouth, our local Cape Cod legislators … all spoke with one strong voice and called for “this plant not to be refueled and for its orderly shutdown to begin immediately!”

In order to protect the people who elected you, can we expect the same leadership from you both? Will you now stand up and call for the immediate closure of this dangerous plant?

“The NRC has now granted a waiver for Entergy and for the Pilgrim Power Plant from those [post-Fukushima] regulations, and that is just plain wrong,” Markey said in response. “There’s no question about it — it should not be allowed to operate if it’s not going to build these safety features in.”

ELAINE DICKINSON: Markey’s response was a very long-winded reply — it was videotaped and I transcribed it, and it went on for over 11 minutes. Basically, he was patting himself on the back for all the things he has done, and it wasn’t until the end that he said he wants to work the grassroots because if Pilgrim’s not safe it shouldn’t be open …

I was glad he said that [Pilgrim] shouldn’t be allowed to operate if they don’t fix it, but was disappointed that he didn’t call for it to shut down. He kind of twisted his words.

 

Photo by Miriam Wasser

 

THE FIGHT CONTINUES

Even though Pilgrim will stop producing power in 2019, anti-Pilgrim activists say their work is far from over. “Let’s not forget that the concerns don’t just end when the plants shut down,” says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. “In many ways, in this phase-out, Pilgrim will be far more dangerous than it ever was before.”

While they plan to continue lobbying elected officials and filing petitions with the NRC to get Pilgrim closed immediately, many activists identify a few separate, yet related, priorities moving forward. The first concerns the decommissioning of the plant. As per its operating license with the NRC, Entergy has 60 years to “decommission” the plant — remove all physical structures and clean up all radioactivity. Besides being a long and challenging process, decommissioning is also expensive, which makes anti-Pilgrim activists worry about the company cutting corners.

PAUL RIFKIN: My major concern with decommissioning is that I am confident that Entergy, the owner of Pilgrim, will figure out a way to go cheap and not follow guidelines and protocol. And they have learned over the years of their operating that the worst they will receive is a slap on the wrist by the NRC.

ED RUSSELL: After 2019, there’s absolutely no telling whether they’re going to take 60 years to finally remove everything from that site [because the rate] at which they shut down is indeterminable. I have no idea and no one else does either. We have hopes — I’d like to have them decommission and put everything in dry storage immediately. But will that happen? I don’t know; no one knows.

PAUL GUNTER: Once the plant does shut down, [Entergy’s] profit motive is completely shut down too. The industry is looking for the back door to exit its accountability and liability.

PAUL RIFKIN: Sadly, the state government has continually stated that its hands are tied because the facility is regulated by the federal government. However, as the state is responsible for the public safety of its citizens, a governor with cojones — bravery, not balls — could stand up to both Entergy and the NRC and demand that public safety trumps corporate profit.

SUSAN CARPENTER: Closing Pilgrim gives people a false sense of security. But this is actually the most dangerous time because Entergy is not going to put capital into something that is dying.

BILL MAURER: Everyone is very concerned about decommissioning, but also what’s going to happen with the [nuclear] waste. The fight is really just beginning because that waste is going to be there for a long time.

PAUL GUNTER: Now we’re facing Pilgrim’s real legacies: the uncertainty and cost of decommissioning the plant, and the legacy of nuclear waste.

Another big concern is the spent nuclear fuel currently being stored on-site. When nuclear power first came on the scene decades ago, the federal government promised to create and oversee a centralized waste depository. But for reasons having mostly to do with politics, this has never come to fruition. In the meantime, a whole lot of spent nuclear fuel is being stored at the taxpayer’s expense at power plants across the country, and the activists plan to continue raising public awareness about this. Pilgrim might stop producing power in a few years, they explain, but in all likelihood, the residents of Plymouth will be stuck with the waste forever.

PAUL RIFKIN: The dangers of the spent fuel, which sadly is not really spent and will be stored onsite indefinitely, remain a grim nightmare for our citizenry in perpetuity.

PAUL GUNTER: It is a moral outrage, and it is a threat to not only us, but to our children’s children’s children.

SUSAN CARPENTER: From the beginning people have said that people will solve the problem of nuclear waste, but I don’t think there is a solution.

PAUL GUNTER: They say somebody else will take care of it. … I mean, is it just going to go to an Indian reservation? Is that a good place? That’s what they’ve tried to do before. Are we just going to orphan nuclear waste in Hispanic communities out west? Or send it to Yucca Mountain, an area with earthquakes?

MARGARET STEVENS: This whole thing always makes you ask, “Where are the intelligent adults and when are they going to come and speak out?” You keep waiting for someone to show up who is smart and knows what to do about [Pilgrim]. We have all of these smart people at MIT and Harvard — do they just not know how dangerous this is? How could they not?

PAUL GUNTER: There are no good solutions, yet all this waste is sitting in a pool six to ten stories up on the Massachusetts seacoast and facing a whole host of issues like sea-level rise and climate change. It’s a conundrum, it’s not easy, but it’s very, very real.

Most of Pilgrim’s spent fuel is currently held in an over-packed cooling pool above the reactor, and will remain there until it can be moved into more permanent storage. (When spent nuclear fuel rods are removed from a reactor, they’re still highly radioactive, so they are put in large pools of water to “cool.” After a few years, this “nuclear waste” is often moved to big cement canisters called dry casks, where it will stay indefinitely.)

While some anti-nuclear activists express concern about the location and structural integrity of the casks, all agree that the spent fuel rods need to be moved out of the pools and into dry cask storage as soon as possible. Time is of the essence, they say, because the Boraflex panels in the pool — which prevent spent fuel fires by absorbing neutrons so fission can’t occur — are rapidly degrading.

BILL MAURER: I’ve been concerned [for a long time] about how much spent nuclear fuel is stored in the pool [at Pilgrim]. The spent nuclear fuel pool was designed to hold 880 spent fuel assemblies, and it has over 3,000 assemblies. They’ve packed them tighter in the pool and put these Boraflex panels in to absorb neutrons, but still, the pool has four times the amount of fuel in it. In a matter of days [if something went wrong with the panels], the pool could reach criticality.

DIANE TURCO: The waste is mostly in the pool in the attic [and] that’s the big danger now. We have the spent fuel in a pool with degrading Boraflex panels. That’s huge. … If something happens and there’s a severe accident, that pool is gone, Plymouth will be gone, and Boston will be contaminated if the wind’s blowing that way. …

Some people just did a study about how far-reaching the damage would be if something happened to the pool, and Dr. Edwin Lyman [of the Union of Concerned Scientists co-authored] an article about it in Science Magazine. It’s all about the spent fuel pools and the dangers they pose. They recommend that the pools be thinned — the best thing Entergy could do is move the fuel to dry casks. … Dr. Lyman spoke to us in 2013, and the topic of his talk was “Are we safe?” So the final question to him was “Dr. Lyman, are we safe?” And he said no. He doesn’t mince words.

MARY LAMBERT: Dave Lochbaum [of the Union for Concerned Scientists] says, “You’re lucky you haven’t had an accident.” I don’t like being just lucky.

DIANE TURCO: They’ve known the Boraflex panel issue was a problem since the ’90s, but preventative maintenance isn’t a priority there. … In May 2016, the NRC said Entergy needed to do something about the panels by next September — they said the panels were degrading but that they didn’t think it was that much. Then in July, [the NRC] said there were nearly 600 degrading panels. In December 2016, after a new evaluation of the panels, the NRC found that 885 panels will be susceptible to deterioration in 2017. The May 2017 inspection found that there is a lack of long-term solution for panels.

MARY CONATHAN: Entergy has admitted that this is a problem, and the NRC told them to fix it.

DIANE TURCO: Entergy has been looking at it and looking at it, and finally the NRC filed a violation because they didn’t submit a plan.

MARY CONATHAN: Our focus now is going to be on the Boraflex panels and moving the spent fuel rods to dry casks; a lot will depend on how safely stored the fuel rods are. We’re also going to try to get the term “Boraflex” into the vernacular. We want to be able to hold up signs that say “Boraflex” and have people know what it means.

DIANE TURCO: Bill Maurer and I met with NRC inspectors last summer [after] there had been an article about Boraflex panels degrading. I asked them what can be done about it, and they alarmed us because they said that, yes, this is a big issue and the fuel should be moved to dry casks. … They could move fuel around in the pool, so that the hotter fuel is separated. And that’s what they’re doing. But the best thing they could do is move the fuel to dry casks.

As citizens vocalized their concerns about the decommissioning process, the anti-Pilgrim movement’s biggest ally in the State House, Senator Dan Wolf, helped pass legislation ensuring that the state would be intimately involved in the process. Modeled after the citizen group formed in 2014 to help monitor the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, the Massachusetts legislature established the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP).

PINE DUBOIS: The legislation was passed by the Mass. legislature [in 2016], and it sets out exactly how the panel works and who is on it. … The role of the panel is to advise the governor and educate the public. It’s a pretty tall order and I think everyone on the panel is approaching it with sincere dedication, and I think a lot will come of it.

HEATHER LIGHTNER: The panel is just focused on decommissioning, not the day-to-day operations of the plant, and we also have smaller working groups that are focused on certain issues that the panel is going to address as a whole. … We want to work with Entergy to get the best outcome we can get for decommissioning.

PINE DUBOIS: I think that the fact that the legislation was passed last year to start the decommissioning panel was important, and I’m hopeful that working within those lines of the accepted public arena will bear more fruit. And if it does, it will be because of all that went before. And I think that law passed because of all that went before. I think that every action that everyone took led to more consciousness, more concern, skepticism, analysis, more care on the part of the NRC and [Entergy]. It all combines, and I think that’s the value of a democracy.

 

Photo of 1979 demonstration at Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common by and courtesy of Jon Chase

 

EPILOGUE

At the end of every interview conducted for this oral history, we asked two questions: What impact do you believe decades of activism have had, and what do you think the legacy of these actions will be? Here are some of the answers.

ED RUSSELL: One legacy is that anti-nuclear sentiment has grown each year, and now I think that most people in town are against the plant being here. That was not the case in the ’80s. Through the years, [all these actions have] added up.

MARGARET STEVENS: One of our main purposes is to educate people on the Cape. People used to say, “What’s Pilgrim?” They don’t say that now.

MARY CONATHAN: The movement definitely educated people in the area. Many knew nothing about the risk, and at least now they know there is a risk. Still, it’s a question as to what we really accomplished. I was an anti-war activist before this, and you can’t just sit on your couch and complain about things. You have to get up and try.

JOYCE JOHNSON: I think more and more people are learning [that Pilgrim is dangerous]. It’s taken a long time, but anyone who doesn’t know it has really got their head in the sand.

DAVID AGNEW: I personally believe that Pilgrim will permanently close only for economic reasons — nothing else has any impact on that decision. I do, however, think that public awareness to the risks has been greatly expanded due to the work of citizen activists. And this public awareness has caused a little more scrutiny and probably caused Entergy some more expense. Not a lot, [but] the additional expense is what’s hopefully causing it to shut down.

PAUL RIFKIN: [I’ve] been at it now going on six years, and it’s still operating. We haven’t made one iota of progress to shutting it down other than that public opinion is now on our side. … That doesn’t mean I think the efforts aren’t worthwhile. Otherwise, we’d be giving up and giving in.

BILL ABBOTT: If you took a poll in Plymouth, people would love to see it close. It can’t come soon enough. By and large the public opinion has largely shifted.

HEATHER LIGHTNER: I would say that public opinion in Plymouth has changed since 2012. … The town has really relied on it for tax revenue, and a lot of people in town didn’t want Pilgrim to shut down. But now that it’s already been decided it’s closing, I’m hoping that the town can come together to decide what’s the best way to move forward.

ED RUSSELL: You need people of all different stripes. … [Throughout the years], I have been surprised at the zeal of the activists and protesters, and surprised at their perseverance. And yet, we all have things that we do because they’re fun or because we have a feeling of responsibility — I’m sure that’s what drives Mary Lampert [and others].

MARY LAMBERT: What Diane does, and what Cape Downwinders do, is important. They’re trying to develop pressure on politicians by demonstrating that there is public interest. You can have people banging at the door protesting and holding signs, but at a certain point, you also need the solid facts and legal homework done. The politicians can open the door, but once the door is open, you have to have factual support and an understanding of what the laws are and are not to make the deal. So for what I do, it’s not to my benefit to slap on a T-shirt and hold a sign and yell “Shut it down!” And that’s not saying what they’re doing is wrong and they shouldn’t do it; it’s just that it doesn’t fit the role I want to play. … [These two strategies] work together.

PINE DUBOIS: I believe that it takes a wide range of efforts in order to address some of these very difficult situations. … It’s a matter of hanging in there and sticking with it. We need to make these things happen — we being the public, the “we the people” that are supposed to be in charge of all of this stuff.

SUSAN CARPENTER: I think we will be remembered as a group that stood up to power.

MARY CONATHAN: I feel we have made a difference. I feel we are making a difference. I’m just annoyed that we can’t get more people involved, more people to react. I’m very confused by the apathy and indifference by people to something they should care about. … We definitely lost a lot of momentum with the announcement of the closure — it was very clever on their part, now that I think about it — but we’ve been told by other nuclear activists that you have to keep fighting because if you stop, you’re allowing them to win.

JOYCE JOHNSON: I think these ongoing trials and protests have had some influence. [Entergy and the NRC] really have to work hard to defend what they’re doing because of the protests. I think we’re having an effect. … Every action is another nail in the coffin. There have been a lot of nails in the coffin, a lot of action.

DIANE TURCO: Unfortunately, since the Entergy announcement that Pilgrim is closing in 2019, the urgency to shut down now has diminished, and some activists have moved on to other issues. … But we can’t give up because the threat is still there and we have a lot more work to do. I hope that we’ve provided a foundation for activism in our community, but this is going to be an ongoing issue.

HEATHER LIGHTNER: Concerned Neighbors of Pilgrim is the only group that is in Plymouth — Pilgrim’s host town. We really want to work with Entergy. We’ve always sort of said that the group is not pro-nuke or anti-nuke, but that our mission is safer storage of spent fuel. I feel that the Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel takes the same point of view. … I wouldn’t be spending time on the whole decommissioning issue if I felt that it was a lost cause. I’m realistic, but I’m optimistic too.

PAUL RIFKIN: We need to work for miracles because that’s the only chance we have. Just because you don’t really believe it can happen anymore doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Someone has to stand up. I see what I’m doing as something really important for the community. We aren’t going to close the facility; it isn’t that easy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t righteous to try.

 

 

Thank you to all those who gave interviews for this edition, and to all those who have been a part of this story in some way over the past 50 years. The following appear in Pilgrims (in alphabetical order):

BILL ABBOTT (lawyer, co-founder of Plymouth County Nuclear Information Center)

DAVID AGNEW (anti-nuclear activist, co-founder of Cape Downwinders)

CHRISTOPHER BESSE (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman)

SUSAN CARPENTER (activist with Cape Downwinders)

MARY CONATHAN (activist with Cape Downwinders)

ELAINE DICKINSON (activist with Cape Downwinders)

PINE DUBOIS (executive director of Jones River Watershed Association, president and executive director of Jones River Landing)

PAUL GUNTER (director of Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project, co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance)

JOYCE JOHNSON (Falmouth-based anti-nuclear activist)

MARY LAMPERT (director of Pilgrim Watch)

HEATHER LIGHTNER (president of Concerned Neighbors of Pilgrim, citizen representative on the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel)

BILL MAURER (retired engineer and activist with Cape Downwinders)

PATRICK O’BRIEN (senior communications specialist at Entergy Pilgrim Station)

PAUL RIFKIN (activist with Cape Downwinders)

ED RUSSELL (lawyer, activist, Plymouth resident)

DIANE SCRENCI (senior public affairs officer at Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

MEG SHEEHAN (environmental lawyer)

MARGARET STEVENS (activist with Cape Downwinders)

SARAH THACHER (longtime anti-nuclear activist, member of Cape Downwinders)

DIANE TURCO (co-founder of Cape Downwinders)

LARRY TYE (former Boston Globe reporter)


This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and published in DigBoston (in part) and as a standalone print magazine. If you would like a copy please make a donation at givetobinj.org and email Chris Faraone (fara1@binjonline.org).


Miriam is a Massachusetts native and former staff writer for the Phoenix New Times who has reported on nuclear energy extensively for BINJ.


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