Image for post
Image for post
Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

PILGRIMS: 50 Years of Anti-Nuclear Mass: An Oral History


Mar 3, 2018 · 40 min read

By Miriam Wasser



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.

Image for post
Image for post
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.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Miriam Wasser


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.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by and courtesy of Elaine Dickinson

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?

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Miriam Wasser


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.

Image for post
Image for post

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 problems Pilgrim 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.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Miriam Wasser


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 8x10 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.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Miriam Wasser


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.

Image for post
Image for post

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.

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


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.

Image for post
Image for post

PILGRIMS: An Oral History by BINJ


BINJ Reports

The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism produces bold…


Written by

Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism … VISIT OUR PUBLICATION ON MEDIUM:

BINJ Reports

The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism produces bold reporting on issues related to social justice, and cultivates writers and multimedia producers to assist in that role. BINJ supports independent publications in various capacities.


Written by

Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism … VISIT OUR PUBLICATION ON MEDIUM:

BINJ Reports

The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism produces bold reporting on issues related to social justice, and cultivates writers and multimedia producers to assist in that role. BINJ supports independent publications in various capacities.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store