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Photo of Diane Turco and David Agnew by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

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




After failing to prevent the restart, the new leaders of the anti-Pilgrim movement changed the focus of their activism. Instead of talking about the dangers of nuclear power in general, the activists “decided to be more focused on Cape Cod.” They decided to pursue two public education campaigns: getting thyroid-protecting potassium iodide pills (KI pills) publicly distributed, and expanding the emergency planning zone (EPZ).

DIANE TURCO: We needed to educate the public on the dangers of Pilgrim by making the risks real on a personal and community level. … People need to be aware that they’re at risk and it’s unacceptable, so we figured if we went with those two points, it would stir up interest in what’s going on …

At the time, people weren’t really thinking about KI. It wasn’t a big public concern, so we had to make that as part of our effort with public education. We worked on legislation to get the KI pills available here for the public in the 1990s and early 2000s.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We did a whole thing about having those pills that we would take if there was a nuclear explosion so we wouldn’t have our thyroids destroyed.

MARGARET STEVENS (activist with Cape Downwinders): We had a campaign to get people to get KI pills, and I remember we had hazmat suits and stood outside town hall with signs saying “Get your KI pills here.” We had musicians out there too.

SUSAN CARPENTER (activist with Cape Downwinders): The KI pill is to prevent one form of cancer — thyroid cancer — but it doesn’t protect against any other form. The rest of the body is completely susceptible to radiation.

MARY CONATHAN (activist with Cape Downwinders): It’s like a pacifier. It’s certainly not a long-term solution.

MARGARET STEVENS: You’d need one of those every day that you’re in the plume.

DIANE TURCO: We say, “It protects the thyroid, not the child.”

MARY CONATHAN: Our lives are in danger, but we have a pill that will protect us for a few hours. We’re just supposed to take our KI pill and go to the basement and wait.

DIANE TURCO: Still, the big thing about us getting it on the Cape is that the state acknowledges we are at risk. That’s the big thing because they kept saying, “Oh no, no, the radiation is going to be dispersed by the time it gets to the Cape. There’s no public health threat.” [If this were the case] we wouldn’t have them. But we do …

What other industry requires medication for the public in case they screw up?

In the second half of the ’90s, as a new generation of anti-Pilgrim activists came together to fight for KI pills and an EPZ expansion, Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University and former director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry, also started ringing alarms about Pilgrim.

In multiple peer-reviewed studies, he and other scientists documented elevated cancer rates near the facility.

“The closer one lived to Pilgrim, the greater the risk of cancer. The longer and closer a person has lived to Pilgrim, the greater the risk of exposure to harmful radionuclides and the greater the chance of developing radiation-linked illnesses,” Clapp writes.

According to his “Southeastern Massachusetts Health Study,” which was published in the summer of 1996 in the Archives of Environmental Health, “Adults living and working within 10 miles of Pilgrim had a fourfold increased risk of contracting leukemia between the years of 1978 and 1983 when compared with people living more than 20 miles away.”

DIANE TURCO: Dr. Helen Caldicott always goes back to — whenever I say there needs to be a study done about cancer — she says there have already been enough, it’s already documented.

In November 1998, about two years after Clapp published his study, Boston Edison announced it would sell Pilgrim to the Louisiana-based company Entergy Corporation for a mere $80 million.

“We certainly were not happy with that transfer,” Bill Abbott says, “and I remember looking into the finances of it and thinking there was some real concern with Entergy’s financial capability and background. We tried to raise the issues, but the decisions were made.”

According to the activists, not much changed after the transfer — “I don’t think I really thought much about another company coming in because it was still the same reactor and still under the NRC,” Diane Turco says. Though the attacks on September 11, 2001, raised new concerns about the threat of terrorism at nuclear power plants, the activists didn’t really go head-to-head with the new owner until a few years later.

Photo of protesters in 1993 courtesy of Mary Lampert


As the federal agency that oversees civilian nuclear power, the NRC is responsible for licensing all plants. A typical operating license is good for 40 years, though plant owners are able to apply for 20-year extensions. Pilgrim was licensed in 1972, meaning that a few years after Entergy bought the plant from Boston Edison, it needed an extension if it wanted to operate past 2012.

In January 2006, the company began the application process.

“Entergy was confident that the facts of science and engineering — in conjunction with following the regulatory process — would determine the outcome of license renewal,” says Patrick O’Brien, senior communications specialist at Entergy Pilgrim Station.

Plants all around the country have successfully applied for extensions. According to an NRC spokesperson, it usually takes about 22 months to complete the process. In the case of Pilgrim, it took six years.

MARY LAMPERT: As a citizen, you can file a request to the board that NRC has, which consists of judges and lawyers, to have a hearing. You can request to take formal part in the process by submitting various legal briefs called “contentions.”

There are only certain issues that are allowed to be litigated, and most you care about the NRC has taken off the table: emergency planning, spent fuel, health impacts. The NRC has decided they’re generic issues, so you can’t litigate them. You can, however, litigate on technical issues.

So you submit a brief to that board explaining what the contention is and what your rationale is. Each contention was 150 pages, and I had five. Then there’s a hearing before the board and questions are asked on both sides. Obviously, Entergy opposed me. The judges made a decision and accepted three of my contentions to move forward, and from there it evolved just like any legal action: hearings, multiple briefs, counter filings by Entergy and NRC. It was a three-ring circus.

I was going to have a lawyer, but she moved to Maui — “I’m sure you’ll find another lawyer,” she said. Wrong. I tried. I put ads in journals and wrote to law firms and law schools from Virginia to Maine — every frigging place I could think of. Every major law firm that does pro bono work had a potential conflict of interest, and little ones wouldn’t take it because they knew it was going to be a long and expensive thing and we probably wouldn’t win.

It was very expensive, but there wasn’t time to go out and have a fundraiser. I was trying to answer responses and move forward in this case. It was a big effort. I budget a certain amount of money that I’ll spend on this issue for the year, and I decided I was not going to spend over $20,000 of my own money. I sent out a letter to my email server list: “Here’s the situation. If anyone can contribute, that’d be great. I need experts on meteorology, pipes, etc.” One person contributed $5. I was almost like “Are you fucking kidding me?” but had to write “Oh, thank you very much, that’s very nice.”

So here I am, never having written a brief, while Entergy had their own lawyers and hired a major firm in Washington. The joke is, I’m not a lawyer but was involved in litigation, and my husband is a lawyer but wasn’t involved. One Christmas, I got [former nuclear industry executive turned anti-nuclear activist] Arnie Gundersen as a Christmas present. My husband hired him to help me, and he came to the house with a bow, which was hysterically funny…

I knew with relicensing, there was a possibility that you could wind up not winning the contention, but getting some results. For example, one of my contentions was about leaking buried pipes at Pilgrim, some of which have radioactivity in them. If they’re leaking, then the radioactivity goes into soil and will end up in Cape Cod Bay. So what we argued for was that there needed to be monitoring and soil testing. Before this was filed, there wasn’t one monitoring well, not one on that property. Because of the information I had gathered, it was brought to the attention of Deval Patrick, who put the big squeeze on Entergy. They now have 22 wells. That was an impact.

As Lampert was fighting in court on technical grounds to stop Pilgrim’s relicensing, other groups worked to highlight environmental and health concerns.

PINE DUBOIS: When we at the Jones River Watershed Association realized that they were going for relicensing, we engaged again. We started dealing with the environmental effects of Pilgrim. … We really didn’t want to see the plant relicensed because we thought it was inappropriate and contrary to both public trust and common sense. There was a lot of damage being done to Cape Cod Bay, and the monitoring had fallen off.

MEG SHEEHAN: We were concerned about the impact of the cooling water on the marine ecosystem. We had a lot of documentation about the impacts of that.

PINE DUBOIS: We started to ramp up and started the Cape Cod Bay Watch Program [to monitor and address problems with water quality and marine life in the bay].

MEG SHEEHAN: We also realized that no one had looked at the fact that Pilgrim’s Clean Water Act permit had expired. So we started digging into that regulatory stuff and went to the EPA and got records and monitoring reports. We raised a challenge — we filed a contention — with the NRC saying Pilgrim shouldn’t be relicensing until the Clean Water Act permit was renewed.

PINE DUBOIS: Their permit with the EPA was so grossly out of date.

MEG SHEEHAN: But the NRC punted to the EPA because the Clean Water Act permit was not part of the NRC license [for Pilgrim]. We sent a letter to Entergy and the EPA that we intended to sue because the permit had expired, but based on promises from the EPA that they would [look into it], we didn’t go ahead and sue.

We’ve tried to keep pressure on the EPA, but there’s still no new Clean Water Act permit; they’re operating under a permit that was granted in the 1970s when the plant went online.

DIANE TURCO: Cape Downwinders was also, of course, opposed to relicensing. … [We felt] that they were just going to relicense this reactor, that it was just kind of a rubber stamp. That’s what the NRC is, a rubber stamp machine. …

Part of our efforts was to call attention to two reports commissioned by the attorney general that were very damning about Pilgrim. … Dr. Gordon Thompson and Dr. Jan Beyea did separate studies [about the potential dangers posed by the spent fuel pools at Pilgrim], but they came to the same conclusion that it was an imminent threat to the public because it was densely packed — it wasn’t designed to do that — and that a spontaneous fire could occur.

According to Dr. Beyea’s 2006 report, a spent fuel fire could cause thousands of cancer cases, and the non-cancer-related damages could cost between $105 and $488 billion.

DIANE TURCO: During 2009, ’10, ’11, we were there writing letters to the NRC [and trying to raise awareness about health concerns], but it was not until Fukushima that people really woke up and got involved more.

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin


On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and series of tsunamis wreaked havoc on eastern Japan. The earthquake knocked out power in much of the country, and the subsequent waves flooded about 217 square miles of towns and villages, killing at least 15,894 people — another 2,500 are still considered “missing.” As the government scrambled to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe, another crisis arose: The backup power systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had failed.

With a local news camera fixed on the plant, people watched the accident unfold on television screens across the world. In a matter of days, the plant suffered a series of hydrogen explosions, three reactor cores melted down, and falling water levels in the spent fuel pool sparked fear that radioactive spent fuel rods would catch fire. The Japanese government tried to downplay the severity of the accident, but the meltdown at Fukushima alarmed anti-nuclear activists worldwide. That was certainly the case in Massachusetts Pilgrim’s GE Mark I boiling-water reactor is the same make and model as the reactors in Fukushima, after all.

DIANE TURCO: After Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, it was only a matter of time [until the next disaster]. That’s what we had been reading, and that’s why we were so concerned with Pilgrim. These aren’t fail-safe. I mean, I actually left teaching early — I retired early — after [Fukushima] happened because this work is so important. … This accident woke up a lot of folks to the dangers Pilgrim imposes to us all.

BILL MAURER (retired engineer and activist with Cape Downwinders): I knew Pilgrim was around, and I mean, I thought about it, but I didn’t think much about it all. Then when I learned about Fukushima, and learned that Pilgrim was the same reactor design, that kind of perked my ears up to see what was happening at Pilgrim. I knew people were concerned about Pilgrim, so I searched out the Cape Downwinders and got sucked in.

SUSAN CARPENTER: I happened to have the TV on when the earthquake hit, and I watched the tsunami live — the live coverage of it was the most horrendous thing I’ve ever seen. Eventually the plant [design] came into question, and I was hooked …

To think that we were dealing with the same thing here, we felt we were in real danger.

MARGARET STEVENS: I was involved with Occupy Falmouth, and when we started focusing in on Fukushima and started talking about it … that’s when I started getting interested in nuclear power. I started researching and talking about it, and the Occupy group talked me into doing a presentation. Maybe 15 people came to that first one, but people continued to be interested, so we formed a little group. There were about nine of us, I think. We called it Pilgrim Anti-Nuclear Action, or PANA. I gave another presentation and we gathered more people into our group, but after a while, after we were doing certain actions around Falmouth, we were saying, you know, we’ve got to get out and go further. We knew about Diane’s group so we started getting in touch … and merged with them.

PAUL RIFKIN (activist with Cape Downwinders): I knew Diane [Turco] from the past from anti-war activism and knew she was involved in anti-Pilgrim stuff for decades. And after Fukushima, she became [even more] energized and focused. … She was sending out emails describing the similarities in the reactors between here and what blew in Japan, and I took it to heart and started going to Cape Downwinders meetings.

Photo courtesy of Diane Turco

BILL MAURER: [At the first Cape Downwinders meeting I attended], my jaw was probably open because the problems at Pilgrim are just so glaring. Part of me said, well, sometimes activists go a little too far and embellish and add some emotion, but the more I looked at it, the more I said, “This is crazy. This is really crazy.”

DIANE TURCO: Fukushima blew away the myth that nuclear power is safe.

PATRICK O’BRIEN: While the design of Pilgrim is similar to that of Fukushima, the equipment, location, emergency response plans, and regulations governing its operations are quite different. Pilgrim is not located in a region susceptible to tsunamis or large earthquakes; it is a single-unit site with a dedicated operations and emergency response organization and has emergency equipment designed to mitigate the effects of flooding. Pilgrim operators have the training, license, and authority to take actions in the event of an actual emergency.

PAUL RIFKIN: [Prior to Fukushima], most people on the Cape — similar to where I was at previously — didn’t know there was a nuclear power plant in our neighborhood. And if they knew about it, they weren’t really concerned about it. So we decided one of the basic things we were going to attempt to do was educate the citizenry so that we could get more numbers on our side and grow as a movement. And then hopefully get the politicians to understand what we’re saying and have an impact on either the governor, whose job it is to take care of the safety of the citizens of the commonwealth, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has the mandate to protect everyone in the country from the dangers of nuclear power plants.

We had facts on our side, we had passion on our side, and we had optimism. So we started doing things, from calling community meetings to marching to going to the nuclear power plant and committing acts of civil disobedience to writing letters to the editor, contacting our congresspeople.

BILL MAURER: Then Diane got a copy of the emergency management plans from MEMA. We went through the emergency plans, and if you read in between the lines, you learned that [in the case of a severe accident at Pilgrim] the Sagamore Bridge was definitely going to be closed, and that the Bourne Bridge might be closed.

Photo by Miriam Wasser

With many new and energized members who came to the group in the aftermath of Fukushima, Cape Downwinders started a public campaign highlighting what could happen to their communities if a similar accident occurred at Pilgrim. It was an issue almost guaranteed to rile up the public because, according to the official emergency management plan drafted by MEMA in 1999, the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges — the only roadways into and out of the Cape — were going to be closed to all non-emergency outbound traffic so that people within a 10-mile radius of the plant could evacuate quickly.

PAUL RIFKIN: The state had made a policy that if there was an accident at Pilgrim, one of the first things they were going to do was close both bridges to the Cape. So we wouldn’t be able to get off the Cape! Now why were they doing that? They were doing that, they said, because they wanted the people closer to the plant to be able to escape first, meaning the people in Plymouth and the towns right around Plymouth. And if we were all driving off the Cape at the same time, we would make it more difficult for those people to get out — which is a rational and reasonable thing, except it’s not if you have grandchildren living on the Cape, or if you have property on the Cape, or if you care about not getting cancer and you live on the Cape. Then it becomes somewhat unreasonable.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We’d be trapped here if anything happens.

PAUL RIFKIN: The big thing we started saying then, one of the phrases we came up with, was “no escape from the Cape.”

DIANE TURCO: We’d have dog and pony shows everywhere, and we’d talk about “no escape from the Cape” and why Pilgrim is dangerous.

PAUL RIFKIN: One of the ideas that we came up with was to have a rally at the Sagamore Bridge on Labor Day when people are leaving the Cape.

DIANE TURCO: When the first bridge action was held [in 2011], “no escape from the Cape” was the message. We’d discussed using “Refuse to be a radiation refugee” but agreed that “no escape” was a stronger message for our group. Again, we needed people to identify with the reality that we were expendable collateral damage to the corporate profits of Entergy, and that our government — particularly MEMA — was complicit.

PAUL RIFKIN: The first “no escape from the Cape” rally was very successful. There were 120 people there. There were news teams from Boston, as well as the Cape Cod Times and local coverage, and it made quite a splash. We had a lot of people there with a lot of signs. It was a wonderful celebration of what we were doing.

DIANE TURCO: [After the protest, though], the PR person for MEMA said that the bridges would be open and that our message that the bridges would be closed “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

BILL MAURER: MEMA said it’s not true and you don’t know what you’re talking about. … So we challenged them.

DIANE TURCO: I said, OK, well, maybe I’m misinformed, but I have the 1999 plans, so tell me how I’m misinformed.

I asked for the plans from a local MEMA rep, and he said they couldn’t release them due to “sensitive information,” so then I went to the state police barracks in Bourne. I waited three hours, and [in the end] they just gave me a copy of the 1999 plans — they didn’t have an update.

I called the MEMA office and said I would file a FOIA if necessary [for the updated plans]. I can’t remember if I did file or not, but I did finally get a full copy of the plans.

PAUL RIFKIN: As it turns out, we weren’t full of shit.

DIANE TURCO: Looking through the plans, we found that the bridges are … all blocked off and they’re going to send people into Sandwich. So I’m like, wow, I wonder what the Sandwich people think about this.

I called the emergency director in Sandwich, and I said, “What are you going to do with all of these people in Sandwich?” And he said, “What are you talking about?” And I called the fire chief, the police chief — same thing. None of them knew. Bourne police didn’t know.

BILL MAURER: The emergency management director in the town of Bourne was never told any of this or given a copy of the plan. So we started talking it up with emergency managers on the Cape, and they all said, “No, it can’t be true.”

DIANE TURCO: I called George Baker, who was [then] the head of Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee. He had no idea about any plans for the Cape.

BILL MAURER: Finally we got Kurt Schwartz from MEMA to come down and explain the plans.

Photo by Miriam Wasser

DIANE TURCO: The Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee held a public meeting with MEMA director Kurt Schwartz … because they wanted to know what the plan was. He said, on Cape Cod, we’re closing the Sagamore Bridge so that people in Plymouth can escape down Route 3, and if people from the Cape try to get off, they’re going to jam up the road. [He also said that] the other bridge will be closed if there is any impediment to traffic, which of course there will be. So both bridges are going to be closed, and he said people on the Cape are going to be told to shelter in place. He actually said they’ll be coming down in hazmat suits and they’re going to determine where the hot spots are, and they’re going to relocate everything living. He actually said that. And just like at Fukushima, you won’t be able to return home for a long time. That is the official state of Massachusetts plan for us.

BILL MAURER: Their jaws dropped; they couldn’t believe it. And when the emergency managers on the Cape expressed some degree of horror, no one had an answer. MEMA didn’t have an answer.

DIANE TURCO: So, bottom line, there are no plans to protect the public, only pieces of paper completed from a checklist of regulations that are meaningless.

BILL MAURER: It legitimized our concerns because prior to that, they were treating us like we were a bunch of tree-hugging hippies overreacting.

ED RUSSELL: As a lawyer, whenever we had a risk in the corporations I worked for, I would look at two things: What is the likelihood that something will go wrong, and if something goes wrong, what’s the dollar exposure, or risk, of an injury or death? If something came in with a low likelihood but a very big loss, I would say you can’t do it. … And with the Pilgrim plant, the liability is enormous. The risk is low, but the result of the potential damage is extremely high. … [The nuclear industry] says, “We’ve thought of everything and we’ve thought of it twice,” but there’s no way you can think of everything. And when you have the risk of destroying Boston, that’s not a risk you can take.

BILL MAURER: I really view it as gambling recklessly with public safety. And whether it’s because they’re making legitimate mistakes or sophomoric mistakes, or they’re doing it on purpose to save money, it bothers me. I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt for so long, but I now really think this has been a bunch of people who have been gambling recklessly with public safety for a number of years.

CHRISTOPHER BESSE (MEMA spokesman): In accordance with federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines and to keep communities safe, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency ensures the preparedness of the state and local communities to effectively respond and mitigate any impacts in the event of an incident at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, including planning, training and exercises involving the communities, Plant and state and federal agencies.

DIANE TURCO: Basically, there’s no plan for the Cape. … It’s all just a cover for Entergy … And it’s corporate profit over public safety, which is, I think, our biggest issue.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Dickinson

In March 2012, about a year after the Fukushima accident, the NRC announced that after reviewing the causes of the accident and the state of the country’s nuclear fleet, all plants must start implementing a new set of safety standards called Diverse and Flexible Coping Strategies, or “FLEX Strategies.” (Colloquially, some people call these new standards the “Fukushima fixes.”)

In mid-May, a few weeks after the FLEX announcement, residents of Plymouth voted 51 percent to 49 percent to tell the NRC to hold off on relicensing Pilgrim until all of the new requirements and upgrades were implemented. But despite this vote and Mary Lampert’s pending legal challenges, the NRC voted 3–1 to grant Entergy’s request for a 20-year extension. (The one no vote came from NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, a physicist who often clashed with industry leaders and left the commission shortly thereafter.)

MARY LAMPERT: When I lost the litigation, it was done in the sleaziest of manners. I remember thinking, “What? It’s over? We’re still filing briefs.” The contentions and the hearings had not been completed, but … the NRC declared that Entergy is the winner and the case is over. It was like calling the game in the beginning of the last inning. The chair of the NRC’s commission disagreed, but it’s majority wins.

DIANE SCRENCI (NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer): Although a new late-filed contention had been referred to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and an appeal of an ASLB decision was pending before the Commission, the Commission determined it was appropriate to issue the renewed license. The NRC staff had completed its work on the application, issuing both a safety evaluation report and an environmental impact statement, which both found it was safe for Pilgrim to operate for an extended period of time. If the renewed license had subsequently been set aside on appeal, the previous operating license would have been reinstated. For completeness, the Commission declined to revisit the ASLB decision, determining the Board had ruled appropriately. The late-filed contention was not admitted and the hearing was not reopened.

DIANE TURCO: We were all shocked that it was relicensed, but like everything else that people have tried to do though the legal process, this failed. Even Governor Patrick wrote a letter to the NRC saying please hold off on the relicensing because public safety concerns haven’t been addressed, but it was relicensed.

MEG SHEEHAN: We were unfortunately unsuccessful, but we were able to raise a lot of political awareness.

PINE DUBOIS: We took actions where we felt there were substantive reasons for concern and more caution to be exercised by the corporation Entergy. When we were not successful, it was not because we were wrong, but because the nature of the bureaucracy was such that we could not win. But we made a good fight out of it and got a lot of people thinking.

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

THE PILGRIM 14 (2012–2014)

In the spring of 2012, Cape Downwinders decided to hold a big rally near the plant on Mother’s Day. “We wanted to call attention to the Pilgrim dangers and our demand for closure,” Turco says, adding that they chose the holiday because it’s “a day of acknowledging our responsibility to protect current and future generations and the environment from the dangers of Pilgrim.” So on May 21, 2012 — coincidently just a few days before the NRC extended Pilgrim’s operating license — a large crowd gathered near the plant.

BILL MAURER: The rally was right after I started [getting involved in the anti-Pilgrim movement]. I may not even have gone to a Cape Downwinders meeting yet, but I found out that they were going to have a rally at the plant. So I went up there myself — I didn’t know anybody — and there were only a couple guys; the rest were ladies, older ladies. We looked like the garden club, a bunch of older ladies in sunhats. I mean seriously, there were no young people; it was all older retired people with time.

DIANE TURCO: We thought we would meet at the intersection of 3A and Rocky Hill Road and march toward the plant. They didn’t even let us get near it.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We marched, people made speeches — a lot of people were there. And then we were told not to cross a certain line, of course. But we had made the decision that we were going to.

PAUL RIFKIN: I’ve been arrested three times at Pilgrim [for] performing civil disobedience. Usually it’s the same thing: We go right outside the facility across the street, and we have signs and stuff, and then we cross onto the property. They had barriers, and they knew we’re coming. We tell the police we’re coming, so the Plymouth Police were there and private security for Entergy was there.

DIANE TURCO: We started walking onto the property — Entergy owns that road.

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

PAUL RIFKIN: We wanted to deliver a letter to the owner saying it was dangerous; we wanted to express our view. We offered it to the security people who worked there, but they wouldn’t take the letter. So we told them, “If you don’t take the letter, we’re crossing the barrier.” And the police said, “If you cross the barrier, we’re going to arrest you.”

BILL MAURER: I remember this older lady was selling T-shirts and said, “You can have it for half price if you get arrested.” I thought she was joking, but sure enough, at the end of the procession and speeches, people started crossing the police line and getting arrested. I’ve never been arrested for things like this, but I said I would do it. So I did it. The joke was that I bought the T-shirt for half price so I had to get arrested.

PAUL RIFKIN: Fourteen of us — including Diane, Bill Maurer, and Joyce — we crossed the barrier and got arrested.

JOYCE JOHNSON: We felt good about it; we were having a good time.

BILL MAURER: After they put us in jail and started processing us, a cop said to me, “You didn’t plan on getting arrested, huh?”

I said, “How did you know?”

He said, “You don’t have enough money to make bail.”

I said, “How much?” and he said, “$40.” I said, “Well, I had $40, but I spent half on a T-shirt.”

He said, “Ask your buddies [for money],” and I said, “I don’t even know these people.” Then he said, “Well, I’ll lend you the money if you need it.”

In the end, Diane and the people running the protest made sure everyone was taken care of, but I thought it was really interesting that the cop was willing to help. The police were always very professional and very nice. … I got arrested one other time, I can’t remember when — probably a little over a year after that — but that was my intro. I got to cross off one of the lines on my bucket list: getting arrested for a good cause.

JOYCE JOHNSON: It was a happy occasion because we were really glad that we were able to do it. Of course, we had to go back and forth to court several times, and that was kind of a nuisance. But we had lawyers that worked for us pro bono, and that was wonderful. To have lawyers who are willing, and believe enough in your cause to represent you for nothing, is pretty nice.

PAUL RIFKIN: [Early on], the DA said, “If you plead out now, we’ll let you off for a fine.” They don’t want to go to trial; it’s a big pain in the ass and they don’t want to give us the PR for it. It’s a game. So we kept going back, and they kept offering us this and that. A couple people ended up pleading out and paying the fine, but the rest of us didn’t want to plead out.

MARGARET STEVENS: We got wonderful notoriety after it.

PAUL RIFKIN: It was great PR. The press loved it, that we might go to jail. People would come to the courthouse with signs: “Support the Pilgrim 14.” Eventually they dismissed the case, though I didn’t want to let it go — “You can dismiss the case, but you can’t dismiss the cause,” I said.

On March 15, 2013, almost a year after the initial arrest, a Plymouth District Court judge dropped the charges. The case was over before it went to trial.

SUSAN CARPENTER: When the judge dismissed it, I was absolutely thrilled that the court didn’t issue us a stay-away order. This meant we were free to continue picketing, rallying, and doing civil disobedience. We kind of wanted a trial, but it worked out well.

PAUL RIFKIN: From the courthouse, when they dismissed us, I put it to the group: “Let’s go back and get arrested again. Let’s go back to Pilgrim and do it again.”

ELAINE DICKINSON: We were all riled up. We had all our signs and noisemakers in the car … and we went to the gates of the plant banging on drums and holding signs.

DIANE TURCO: We marched onto the property with our large banner and signs, and it took some time for Entergy security to notice.

PAUL RIFKIN: We went back and got arrested again.

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

According to newspaper reports, about 50 people drove directly to the plant from the courthouse and held a spontaneous rally. The police arrested five people, three of whom had just had trespassing charges against them dropped in the Pilgrim 14 case.

The following Mother’s Day, anti-Pilgrim activists once again gathered for a big rally at the plant. Like the year before, law enforcement told the group not to cross the police line onto private property, but 10 people ignored the warning and were arrested and booked on trespassing charges. After being released from jail, the group — which included many of the original Pilgrim 14 — once again refused to make a plea deal with the district attorney.

This time, though, they got what they wanted. The case went to trial.

The defendants called all sorts of public safety and nuclear power experts as part of their strategy to put the question of Pilgrim’s safety on trial.

DIANE TURCO: The courtroom was packed with supporters. We were very honored to represent the citizens’ concerns in a court of law. … We were all in this together and hoped that the state would understand our actions as necessary to protect our communities …

I represented myself, which meant I had an opening statement and closing statement.

From Turco’s closing statement at the trial:

The testimony we heard this week supports the ongoing serious dangers. Fire Chief Kevin Nord of Duxbury testified that in the event of accident, there is “no reasonable assurance” of public safety in his town.

When the question “Would citizens be safer if Pilgrim were closed?” was asked, Chief Nord said, “Yes.”

Dr. Richard Clapp testified from a published study in 1996 that statistically indicated cancer rates are high near Pilgrim and continue to this day. When the question “Would cancers be reduced if Pilgrim closed?” was asked, Dr. Clapp responded, “Yes.”

Dr. Gordon Thompson [said] that consequences from an accident could exceed Fukushima and would include Cape Cod and Boston. He warned of the serious danger of the spent fuel pool holding four times the amount the structure was designed to temporarily hold.

Mary Lampert testified about the futility of working within the system to affect public safety. Testimony from my beloved community of dedicated citizens expressed the real fear, the feeling of entrapment and the need to use every avenue to close Pilgrim in our efforts to protect our loved ones and beautiful Cape Cod.

DIANE TURCO: It was such an interesting trial, and the judge was so nice. She was very interested, and she let us submit testimony and speak. She allowed everyone to make a statement. It was really powerful.

Joyce Johnson, another defendant, also spoke during the trial. In describing her testimony, she refers to one of the newspaper articles she’s saved in a three-ring binder.

“This is me at the trial,” she says, pointing to a photo of her on the stand and beginning to read the article out loud.

JOYCE JOHNSON (reading from the Cape Cod Times article):

One of the more emotional moments in the four-day trial occurred when defendant Joyce Johnson took the stand. … Johnson got out a piece of paper with a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead. … ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed [Johnson begins crying] it’s the only thing that ever has.’

Photo by and courtesy of Paul Rifkin

On March 22, after four days of testimony, Plymouth District Judge Beverly Cannone found the defendants guilty of trespassing. She sentenced them to one day in the Plymouth House of Corrections, though the punishment was symbolic because she counted their time as served.

DIANE TURCO: We got the sense that [the judge] really understood why we stepped over the line, but had to do her job within its confines. … I think she had tears in her eyes when she said we were guilty.

After the trial, Cape Downwinders planned another protest for Mother’s Day 2014.

DIANE TURCO: We met at St. Catherine’s Chapel Park and had a really good march to the plant — we had big puppets and music and everything.

SUSAN CARPENTER: The demonstration was really neat because we had pansies — that’s what a plant is supposed to be, not a nuclear plant.

When we got to the reactor, we had a little vigil there, and [longtime anti-nuclear activist] Sarah Thacher read a statement:

This Mother’s Day action is an expression of our rage against a polluting nuclear reactor and our love for all children. … We are here to put our bodies on the line with an apology that we didn’t understand earlier about this evil that is being perpetrated on our children and generations to come.

After the vigil, as in years past, some of the protesters crossed the police line onto Entergy’s property.

DIANE TURCO: Four of us — Sarah, Susan, Mary and me — walked across the street to start planting pansies, and we were arrested. … We were going to plant flowers and reclaim the land for our children and future generations on the property.

SUSAN CARPENTER: We planned to get arrested. We thought more people would get arrested, but it turned out to only be four of us.

DIANE TURCO: We were in the police transport van when we realized we’re all grandmothers — it was going to be a grandmothers’ trial!

SUSAN CARPENTER: It made the PR better.

After being arrested on May 11, 2014, the four grandmothers refused to take a plea bargain. Their trial, which began in October 2014, included expert testimony from Dr. Helen Caldicott.

SUSAN CARPENTER: That trial was kind of a disaster because of the attorney. We had two pro bono attorneys, and one of them lost his partner right before the trial. But the one who did represent us didn’t submit the right paperwork. Helen Caldicott was coming to testify, but she was disqualified [because the judge ruled her testimony would be speculative]. The headline the next day was “Judge Snubs Expert Witness.”

DIANE TURCO: Helen was only going to be here for the day, and she said, “I can’t come back [to testify later].”

MARY CONATHAN: We almost didn’t get Helen Caldicott.

The following week, though, Judge James Sullivan reversed his original ruling.

SUSAN CARPENTER: So Helen came back and did testify. She talked about the fact that Pilgrim was an imminent threat as well as the dangers it posed.

DIANE TURCO: She was wonderful.

An article in the Cape Cod Times quotes Caldicott as saying, “If I had young children, I would not live on the Cape. … And if I was a pediatrician here, I would advise parents to leave. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Despite an all-star cast of witnesses, on October 23, 2014, the court found the four grandmothers guilty of trespassing. They were charged a fine and given a year of probation.

Before starting Part III, read the bonus section below about the time one of the anti-Pilgrim activists chartered a helicopter to fly over the plant and test its security…

PILGRIMS: An Oral History by BINJ




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.

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