At the edge of the forests that make up much of southeastern Plymouth, on a stretch of land that looks out on Plymouth Bay spilling into Cape Cod Bay, sits the Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station.
Its architecture defies the typical image of a nuclear plant. There are none of the daunting, curved cooling towers of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, no smoke plumes constantly pouring into the atmosphere. To the average observer, it looks like any old power plant, far from the reaches of controversy and concern.
But this facility has been at the heart of impassioned controversy in Massachusetts. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has just voted to grant a twenty-year extension of the plant’s operating license, the political storm promises to continue.
The first warnings signs of renewed controversy appeared just over a year ago, when the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, a clone of the Pilgrim plant, experienced a massive meltdown. The disaster caused many in the Bay State to question Pilgrim’s safety. Communities in Plymouth and on the Cape faced a frightening unknown, one that activists, organized labor, regulators, and congressmen have been trying to address: could it happen here?
Many towns on and around the Cape seem to think so. Residents of Plymouth became the ninth town to approve a resolution
, that formally demands the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to suspend operations at Pilgrim “pending the full implementation of all safety improvements” recommended by the NRC after the Fukushima disaster. Of the 12 towns that voted on similar resolutions in April and May, 11 passed them.
The renewed questioning of Pilgrim’s safety came at an inconvenient time for the plant’s owners. Entergy, a Louisiana-based energy company that has owned Pilgrim since 1999, had spent a record six years applying to the NRC for the twenty-year extension of its operating license, which was set to expire on June 8th. Though the NRC’s website states that an average review process takes up to 30 months, the renewal of Pilgrim’s license has been held back by a number of environmental concerns and litigation filed by activists in Massachusetts (as well as appeals made against the re-licensing by Mass Attorney General Martha Coakley).
To further complicate matters, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced that he would be resigning his leadership position in late May. Although Jaczko stated that his resignation wasn’t politically motivated, some have speculated that the skeptical Jaczko, with his background in nuclear physics and policy rather than the nuclear industry, faced strong opposition from industry-connected regulators and congressmen.
Arlene Williamson, a spokesperson for the Pilgrim Coalition from Mashpee, Massachusetts, said of Jaczko, “He’s the only one that we had confidence in, that looked out for our safety.”
Activists began airing their grievances against the plant more publically in May. Two demonstrations took place within a week of one another at the Sagamore Bridge exit from Cape Cod and at the Pilgrim plant itself. At the latter protest, 14 people – all of whom were in their 60s and 70s — were arrested for trespassing, after refusing to leave company property in an attempt to deliver a letter to an Entergy representative. The letter asked the company to cease operations.
This isn’t the first time, by far, that the Pilgrim plant has been a focus of environmentalist ire. After closing in 1986 due to a wide range of technical and management issues, the plant’s re-opening in 1989 drew protests from community members and Massachusetts politicians alike (including an incident where a top aide to then-Governor Michael Dukakis was forcibly removed from a public NRC briefingfor his outcries against the agency’s regulatory failures).
It was during this time that Mary Lampert first moved down the road from Pilgrimand became one of its most stalwart opponents. Operating largely on her own, Lampert is something of a thorn in Entergy’s side, having filed litigation twelve times against the company since 2006. Although this litigation has mostly been over “nuts-and-bolts” issues related to arcane aspects of nuclear regulatory policy, Lampert had hoped that her efforts would help stall the company in its pursuit of a new license.
“One of the biggest issues is the storage of spent fuel rods,” Lampert explained. “They were originally licensed to only have 880. Instead of requiring them to spend the money on dry cask storage on-site, the NRC just upped the amount allowed to them.”
Lampert listed a host of other problems in Pilgrim’s operations, including inadequate safety measures in reactor suppression chambers, the damage done to local wildlife from the plant’s water discharge, poor on-site security (a major concern for nuclear reactors in the U.S. after 9/11), and the lack of proper evacuation measures for Cape Cod residents, who reside just downwind of the plant.
“You have a right to breathe air that’s clean, to live where you want to live. Clearly, these rights are being abused,” she said.
Lampert had doubts as to whether the NRC would turn down Pilgrim’s license renewal. Out of the 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States, 72 have applied for renewals of their license, with none being rejected.
However, the displays of public opposition gave her hope. “The public has been reactivated, and it’s growing. My hope is that the transition is made from a feeling of ‘You can’t beat City Hall’ to ‘Enough is enough!’ sooner, rather than later,” Lampert said.
Given the twenty-year extension of Pilgrim’s license, activists may face a long and daunting struggle to combat the plant’s operation.
But Entergy has recently been faced with challenges on another front. The unionized workers at the Pilgrim plant have been mired in a contract dispute with the company.
Members of the Utility Workers Union of American (UWUA) Local 369, which represents about 380 of the plant’s 400 employees, has been fiercely negotiating with the company over health insurance, worker safety, and a proposal from Entergy that would replace over a dozen workers with outside contractors. Anticipating that an agreement wouldn’t be reached by the May 15th deadline, the union voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike.
UWUA Local’s President Dan Hurley said, on the night of the vote to strike, “At a time when Entergy CEO J. Wayne Leonard is paid more than $15 million a year, it’s disgusting that the company would attempt to nickel and dime the people who keep the communities around Pilgrim Nuclear safe.”
After a brief picket of the plant the morning after the 15th deadline had passed, Michael Langford, national president of the UWUA, agreed with Entergy to extend the local union’s collective bargaining agreement by ten days. For the time being, the strike had ended. At the behest of the national union, Entergy has extended the workers’ contracts twice, as of this date, to forestall a full-on strike while negotiations continue.
So far, these groups have remained disparate in their efforts against Entergy. Activists have continued to plan, protest, and sometimes file lawsuits. Unions negotiate with the company, giving few specifics to the public about their progress. Even Massachusetts politicians have acted within their capacity as legislators to try and influence the NRC’s ultimate action, with many – including Governor Deval Patrick – writing letters to the agency in opposition to a re-licensing.
The NRC’s decision is not final. Activists in Massachusetts are planning to build on their ten passed resolutions this spring with further votes and public protests, and Attorney General Martha Coakley says that her office will be asking for the NRC’s decision to be re-evaluated.
In 2010, the NRC estimated the chances of an earthquake powerful enough to damage Pilgrim’s core reactor and cause a meltdown to be one in 14,493. Whether those odds are low enough for a feeling a safety, or high enough to motivate regulatory action, remains uncertain. The storm brewing around the Bay State’s one and only nuclear power plant is poised to continue throughout the summer, with only one of two possible endings: the plant remains open with the odds intact, or is closed down temporarily so they might be reduced.