Photo courtesy of Joyce Johnson
To understand the current controversy over the decommissioning of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, you have to understand its past
The story of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant is a tale in which, at every turn, the federal government ignores the concerns of the public—and even powerful officials—and proceeds in any way it pleases, typically in a fashion that benefits impacted business interests. There are few breaks in the shamefully undemocratic narrative—from ignored concerns about Pilgrim consistently being one of the worst-performing reactors in the entire country to worries that came after a 2011 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan, caused a boiling-water reactor there, of the same GE Mark I make and model as in Plymouth, to melt down.
The latest nuclear news out of Plymouth follows the same pattern. With the power station shut for several months now and a long and costly decommissioning process being planned, last week the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a transfer of the facility from the current owner Entergy Corp. to a cleanup firm owned by Holtec International. A behemoth that is also scheduled to acquire the sunsetting Indian Point Energy Center in upstate New York from Entergy, with Pilgrim Holtec stands to pick up the land housing the reactor, as well as approximately $1 billion in federal decommissioning funds. As a Holtec spokesman wrote in an email to WBUR, “Entergy and Holtec believe that the transfer of Pilgrim to Holtec for prompt decommissioning is in the best interests of the town of Plymouth and surrounding communities, the nearly 270 people from the region who work at Pilgrim, and the Commonwealth.”
Not everybody feels the same way. The activist group Pilgrim Watch requested a public hearing and submitted a petition for an intervention. As did Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, who joined in questioning if Holtec can safely complete the task, along with US Sen. Ed Markey, who wrote in a statement: “Too many questions remain and too few answers have been provided. … More hearings and opportunities for public input are needed to resolve critical outstanding questions—until that happens, this license transfer should not be approved.” Plymouth resident Sean Mullin, chair of the state’s Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, told WBUR, “The NRC’s process is a sham. … It’s solely designed and executed to prevent the concerns of citizens from being heard, or even considered, in the NRC’s decision-making process.”
This all sounds quite familiar. One of the most ambitious projects we have ever undertaken at BINJ began in 2016, when we met journalist and nuclear expert Miriam Wasser. Running the distance with a loose idea to interview some activists for the approaching golden anniversary of Pilgrim’s approval, she spent a year sitting with everyone from scientists to lifelong demonstrators. The resulting oral history, “Pilgrims: 50 years of anti-nuclear Mass,” is more than just a time capsule; it also holds valuable information about the potentially volatile nature of the impending cleanup. As Miriam wrote, “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.”
Here’s what some of those on-the-ground sources told us last year, long before this latest snub from the federal government:
ED RUSSELL (lawyer, activist, Plymouth resident): 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 RIFKIN (activist with Cape Downwinders): 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 (activist with Cape Downwinders): 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 (retired engineer and activist with Cape Downwinders): 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 (director of Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project, co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance): 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.