Ed. note: For extensive background on the fight over nuclear energy in Mass, check out Miriam Wasser’s oral history covering 50 years of protests against the power plant in Plymouth at pilgrimsoralhistory.org.
As the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth remained offline for the 22nd consecutive day, supporters and opponents of the plant gathered about six miles away in the dimly lit ballroom of Hotel 1620 this week for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s annual assessment meeting. The federal agency often hosts an annual meeting in communities with nuclear reactors in order to brief the public about the status of the plant and talk about any oversight or safety issues.
Like in years past, those for and against the plant came with brightly colored signs and prepared speeches, and eyed each other cautiously from different sides of the room.
The Pilgrim plant has been plagued by mechanical and operational problems since it began producing power in 1972, and many in the public remain bitterly divided about whether the plant, which is slated to permanently shut down in 2019, poses a significant threat to public safety.
This year’s meeting was particularly fraught because a series of strong winter storms forced the plant to shut down—or scram—twice in the last three months. Pilgrim remains offline as plant workers attempt to fix a transformer located between the electrical switchyard and the reactor.
Though the bulk of the 3.5-hour meeting was public comments—69 people signed up to speak—the night began with short presentations from the NRC and Pilgrim’s owner-operator, Entergy Corporation.
“Pilgrim operated safely in 2017,” said David Lew, acting administrator of NRC Region 1, as many of those in the audience holding neon green “Shut Pilgrim Now” signs groaned.
“The NRC noted some improvements in performance, but sustainably remains to be determined,” he continued. More groans. “Overall performance warrants continued placement in Column 4.” (The NRC rates reactors annually on a scale of 1-5. Column 1 is the best and Column 5 means a mandated federal shutdown. Pilgrim has been in Column 4 since 2015.)
In other words, Lew said, the plant was getting better, but an upgrade would be contingent upon meeting and sustaining certain safety benchmarks.
Many in the anti-Pilgrim section sat with their arms crossed, rolling their eyes or whispering under their breath as representatives from Entergy’s management team took turns responding to the NRC’s comments about their performance last year.
“At Pilgrim we’re not just focused on compliance, we have a passion for excellence in what we do,” said Drayton Pitts, general manager of plant operations at Pilgrim.
“Really?” someone in the audience muttered, prompting laughs from the plant’s opponents and scowls from supporters.
Throughout the evening, the NRC’s pleas for decorum were mostly ignored.
“Our focus has been, and always will be, on fixing the plant and preventing future failure,” said Bruce Chenard, Pilgrim’s operations manager. “In the past, we’d react to equipment failures, fix that, and then continue to run … Now we identify issues before they become problems.”
Lew from the NRC interrupted: “Certainly there are still some issues in work management and engineering problems.”
“We’re not saying that we’ve solved all problems,” Chenard responded. More laughter from the anti-Pilgrim side.
“I don’t mean to sound like a broken record here,” Lew continued, ignoring the audience’s response, “but we at the NRC are not just looking for progress and improvement, we are looking for the sustainably of that progress and improvement.”
Anyone who attended the meeting hoping to hear more than platitudes and the CliffsNotes version of the NRC’s latest inspection reports was out of luck. The process for getting out of Column 4 is long and technically tedious, and the timeline remains unclear.
(Also unclear is when the plant will finish maintenance updates and restart—“The plant is currently safely shut down and being monitored by NRC-licensed officials,” noted Pilgrim’s senior resident NRC inspector Erin Carfang.)
From from there, the energy wound up dramatically, beginning with statements delivered on behalf of US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Congressman Bill Keating, and Mass Attorney General Maura Healey.
“Pilgrim’s stagnation in Column 4 of the NRC’s safety rating system demonstrates that improving safety is not a priority, and signals a greater concern for the bottom line than the people of Southeastern Massachusetts,” Warren’s spokeswoman said. If Entergy does not “fully and swiftly comply with federal safety regulations, the NRC must take the necessary steps to shut the plant down.”
Those in the room wearing “I Support Pilgrim” pins or Entergy shirts took a turn rolling their eyes and grimacing.
Markey, Keating, and Healey echoed the demand for improved operations and federal oversight.
When the officials were done, dozens of men and women from all over the South Shore and Cape Cod took to the microphone. In part because of an almost comically flawed system of organizing the speaker’s list, speeches went on for the next three hours.
Near-pandemonium broke out when one speaker refused to stop talking after her three minutes were up because, she said, she had unfairly lost time at the beginning of her speech. As the buzzer went off, she continued reading and the pro-Pilgrim side of the room began chanting, “Time’s up!” and “Obey the rules!”
The hostility continued as the night wore on.
Between calls for the plant to shut down immediately and forever, many on the anti-Pilgrim side railed against Entergy and the NRC. The litany of criticism included accusations of spinelessness, negligence, and a general abdication of duty.
“I thought [President] Trump had the market on alternative facts, but I think Entergy takes that hands-down,” said Diane Turco, a Harwich resident and president of the local anti-nuclear group Cape Downwinders.
“There’s a widespread belief that the NRC has put Pilgrim’s interest in saving money ahead of the public interest,” Jim Lampert of Duxbury said.
In response, those on the pro-Pilgrim side—many of whom work at the plant—thanked the NRC for recognizing improvements, and took swipes at the critics.
“You have people sitting in this audience who watch out for your safety every day. If you think we go to work every day and worry about safety, you’re correct. If you think we go and sit around all day to collect a check, you’re mistaken,” said Daniel Dove, a Plymouth resident and Pilgrim employee.
“I believe in nuclear power and I find it unfortunate that we’re going to shut it down before the end of its life,” Dove continued, adding that he’s still holding out for another nuclear operator to buy Pilgrim from Entergy and continue operating past 2019. Pilgrim is technically licensed to operate until 2032.
“We’re not over until we give the license back, so buckle up because we’re here and we’re not going anywhere!” The pro-Pilgrim part of the room broke out into applause.
Some speakers struck a more conciliatory tone: “What everyone in this room wants is a safe community,” Plymouth High School teacher Michael Bastoni said. “But we cannot achieve that if we continue with this adversarial approach. If we continue working at odds with one another we will not succeed in establishing the important lines of communication needed to achieve that.”
As one worker from the plant after another lined up to talk about the pride they take in their jobs, and the integrity and commitment of their colleagues, critics of the plant and the NRC grew increasingly frustrated.
“I’ve never seen so many Entergy people here to speak about their jobs,” Turco said. “But this isn’t about their jobs. The NRC doesn’t have any role in their job protection.”
“It’s been an interesting experiencing coming to his meeting and hearing from the people who work at the plant,” said local resident Bernard Graham. “It’s actually quite reaffirming to me to hear them speak this way. But I’m here because I live five miles north of plant in a town called Duxbury, and we just went through a couple of storms. These storms were of a nature that we were told to shelter in place. That’s all well and good, but there were roads that were impassable in our town and you couldn’t get through.”
Facing the panel of NRC representatives, Graham continued: “So I look to you, as an agency of our government—what is your role here? I don’t know. I’d like your role to be to protect us. We need you guys and ladies to be looking out for us. … We’re asking you to keep us safe and do your job.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism