About 300 residents of Cape Cod and the South Shore packed into the ballroom of Hotel 1620 in Plymouth last Tuesday, hoping to finally get some answers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about the future of the beleaguered operation in their backyard, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.
Though a few dozen people wearing green “I support Pilgrim” pins sat quietly in the back of the room, most in attendance were longtime anti-nuclear activists and fierce critics of the plant, who at times broke out into chants of “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
“It is critical that the NRC stop pussy-footing around,” Pine DuBois, an organizer with the nonprofit Jones River Watershed Association, told the four-person NRC panel. “You are putting our lives and our environment at risk. We know we’re not safe … and we insist you close this down.”
DuBois’ fear is understandable, given that a serious accident at the plant could threaten the health and safety of an estimated five million people living in the 50-mile “emergency planning zone” around Plymouth—an area that includes Boston and much of Rhode Island.
The meeting lasted about three hours, during which time NRC officials made speeches, answered questions about safety, and listened to a lot of public testimony about the state and status of the plant.
Though many speeches were fiery and riled up the crowd, the night ended on a disappointing note for most in attendance, as the NRC gave no indication that it plans to close Pilgrim for safety violations.
“Allowing Pilgrim to limp along doesn’t demonstrate that the NRC is acting in the public’s best interest,” one speaker said, spurring major applause.
The situation at Pilgrim is, to say the least, complex. The 44-year old plant is technically licensed to operate until 2032 but is expected to close in 2019 because its owner, the Louisiana-based utility company Entergy, isn’t making a profit. (All around the country, cheap natural gas prices have caused a handful of nuclear power plants to shutter in the last few years.)
While 2019 is only a few years away, many of those living in the shadow of the plant believe it isn’t worth the risk to keep it open for that long. In many ways, their concerns stem from the fact that the plant has had multiple safety issues in the last four years and is officially classified as one of the three worst plants in the country by the NRC.
“I really expected to come here and [for] them [to] say they’re going to shut it down,” local Hingham resident John Gauley said after the meeting. He continued, “That’s how I really came in. I think this is just bullshit. This [meeting] was all blah, blah, blah, but the bottom line is that this is a dangerous situation.”
To fully appreciate the fury of those in attendance, it helps to understand how this situation came to pass.
The NRC ranks plants on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best and 5 meaning a plant is too dangerous to operate and must shut down. For years, Pilgrim was in category 1—along with the vast majority of the country’s 99 operating reactors—but beginning in 2013, the plant’s safety record began to take a sharp turn downwards.
Pilgrim was officially placed in category 4 in September 2015, following a series of temporary emergency shutdowns and other safety concerns. One month later, Entergy announced it would close Pilgrim in 2019, prompting many to worry about whether the company would be willing to put sufficient capital and energy into fixing the plant so it can run safely until then.
According to Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, getting out of category 4 is estimated to cost a plant owner hundreds of millions of dollars. While that’s certainly a lot of money, it’s an especially burdensome sum for a plant that is closing in the near future and won’t be able to recoup any of the loss.
Yet, Entergy promised the NRC it would fix the problems, and shortly after being downgraded it applied for what’s called a 95003 inspection, the very comprehensive, months-long investigation that a plant must pass to get out of category 4.
Critics of Pilgrim were skeptical about Entergy’s readiness for a 95003 inspection at the plant, and many continue to speculate that the company rushed into the process because it wanted to know if it could pass the inspection before refueling this spring. Refueling, or putting new fuel rods into the reactor core, is incredibly expensive—the most recent refueling at Pilgrim in 2015 cost about $70 million—and so, the thinking goes, Entergy wouldn’t want to waste the money doing it if the NRC was going to conclude the whole plant needed to shut down.
The NRC agreed to conduct the special inspection and assigned 20 specialists to the task. The group arrived on site in November 2016 for three weeks of observation and investigation.
THAT ‘PESKY’ EMAIL ‘MAY JUST SAVE OUR LIVES’
At last week’s meeting, NRC team leader Don Jackson told the crowd that every evening during the inspection of Pilgrim, he wrote an email summarizing what the group had found that day and sent it to the relevant people. These emails, he made sure to emphasize, only represented “a certain snapshot of a point in time,” not any final conclusions about the plant.
This latter point is particularly important because, in what’s become a massive PR headache for the NRC, a copy of the email from Dec 6, the end of the second week of inspections, was accidentally forwarded to Diane Turco, executive director of the anti-Pilgrim group Cape Downwinders.
Upon receiving the email, Turco forwarded it to the Cape Cod Times, which wrote an article that brought a new national spotlight to Pilgrim’s problems.
“When I got the email, I thought, ‘They Know. [The government knows] how bad Pilgrim is … hooray,’” Turco says. She humorously refers to the leaked letter as “that pesky email” but also seriously notes that “it may just save our lives.”
For years, Turco and others have said Pilgrim was unsafe and had major problems—it’s had to shut down multiple times for mechanical and safety problems, and last year alone it was found to have 16 serious violations. With the Dec 6 email, however, they had what one person calls “unvarnished proof” of the plant’s problems.
Much of the three-page email is technical jargon, but it includes phrases like: “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.”
The email enraged locals who were already opposed to the plant, but it also created such a stir that more than 23 state and federal officials—including Gov. Charlie Baker, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Attorney General Maura Healey—wrote a scathing letter to NRC Chairman Stephen Burns about it. The letter states:
The views expressed by the leader of the NRC Pilgrim special inspection team in a December 6, 2016 e-mail have raised legitimate concerns among the public about their safety and raised serious questions about Entergy’s ability to continue to operate the plant safely. While the NRC undoubtedly regrets the inadvertent disclosure of the preliminary thoughts expressed in the December 6 e-mail, the disclosure happened, and the NRC now has the obligation to address questions raised by that e-mail to help assuage growing public safety concerns.
The leading politicians continued: “Recently, an Entergy spokesperson stated that the inspection ‘is the next step in Pilgrim’s process toward a return to industry excellence.’ While the spokesperson further claimed that Entergy has ‘worked hard to address the issues that led to station performance decline,’ 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.’”
The letter also received widespread media coverage and prompted the NRC to organize Tuesday’s meeting—even though the special inspection is still is not finished.
During last week’s meeting, no matter how many times the four men in dark suits on the NRC panel referred to the controversial email as “a snapshot in time,” claiming it was not necessarily indicative of what the final report would conclude, the crowd wasn’t buying it. (At one point, NRC leader Jackson attempted to justify his usage of the term “overwhelmed,” explaining that the staff was overwhelmed by the presence of the inspectors, not by the job of running the plant. Suffice it to say that did absolutely nothing to allay public fears.)
“In that email, you disclosed systemic mismanagement and ongoing federal violations of safety standards,” Turco told them. “I’m going to trust that email.”
“If I could afford to buy a house [near Pilgrim], I would do it in a heartbeat,” Jackson responded at one point, attempting to demonstrate his belief that the plant is safe.
“We in this community are on a sinking ship and you, the NRC, are at the helm,” another woman in the audience told the officials. “If tragedy strikes, you own it.”
“History will not absolve you,” someone yelled, causing people in the room to begin chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
The meeting ran late into the evening, as speaker after speaker used their allotted time slots to berate the agency. One young man said he felt safe living near the plant and that he trusted the NRC to do a proper inspection; otherwise, everyone who spoke pleaded for the agency to shutter Pilgrim.
“We are in grave and critical danger, and for it to continue at your behest is criminal,” said local resident Carol Bosley as the room burst into applause.
By the end of the night, the crowd had dwindled to the most devoted and diehard critics of the plant, who frequently held up neon green signs ordering “Shut Pilgrim Now.” As speakers stepped up, Pilgrim was referred to as a “repeat offender,” “a wreck,” and a “functionally obsolete plant that was poorly designed and poorly maintained.” The NRC, meanwhile, was said to be “playing Russian roulette” with millions of lives and engaging in “magical thinking” about the plant’s safety. Multiple speakers also questioned the federal regulator’s credibility and motives.
On their part, the NRC officials gave no indication that they have any intention of prematurely closing the plant or that they foresee a problem with the company refueling this spring. Short on details, they merely reiterated that the final decision is slated to come later this spring, probably in mid-April.
A spokesman for Entergy declined to comment on the special investigation or the substance of the meeting, providing only the following comment:
The NRC has stated repeatedly that Pilgrim is safe to operate. We understand and appreciate the NRC’s need to address, in a public setting, the email it released in December 2016. We continue to work to improve station performance to meet the NRC’s and our high standards of operational reliability and safety. The final inspection report is not expected to be released until later in the year. We will not comment until the final report is completed and made public.
“I’m just appalled that they’ve already decided to refuel, that they would sit here in front of all these people who are saying, ‘Shut down Pilgrim,’ and they haven’t even finished the special inspection,” Turco told reporters after the meeting.
“It’s costing Entergy $70 million to do this, and it’s a slap in the face to the public … It’s a severe violation of the public trust that they haven’t finished a special inspection … Pilgrim is the worst operating plant in the country, and yet they’re already moving to get it ready for the next two years.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.