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Boston Endangered: Time To Close the Pilgrim Reactor
Nuclear power plant on the coast. (Image: via Shutterstock)

Boston Endangered: Time To Close the Pilgrim Reactor

Nuclear power plant on the coast. (Image: via Shutterstock)

Cape Cod isn’t the only place in Massachusetts that would suffer from a major accident at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth. Only 35 miles away, Boston and its suburbs are also at risk.

The Fukushima disaster has prompted several European countries to shift away from nuclear energy. Japan’s recent decision to reopen its nuclear plants has met with overwhelming opposition from the public. While the Obama administration continues to promote the “clean” aspects of nuclear power and to subsidize private plants, the aging Pilgrim facility poses safety risks for the coastal residents of Massachusetts that trump any climate-change benefits.

Even with a remote statistical risk, a nuclear accident would be catastrophic to human health, the environment and property – creating economic distress from the destruction of coastal fisheries and tourism alone.

Consider first that Pilgrim, completed in 1972 with technology from the 1950s and ’60s, was licensed for 40 years (to 2012). Its GE Mark 1 reactor is the same type that failed at Fukushima. Designed to contain 880 spent fuel assemblies, Pilgrim now holds more than 3,200. That is more than twice the number in Fukushima’s Unit 4 pool – which was enough to cause the Japanese government to plan for the evacuation of Tokyo, 140 miles away.

It doesn’t take a major earthquake or tsunami. The safety systems at Pilgrim rely on external electricity, with backup generators that are antiquated. A power outage could cause those systems to fail, interrupting the vital cooling process. Indeed, with extreme weather events increasing, the Pilgrim facility is at risk.

Pilgrim’s “once-through” cooling system sucks more than 500 million gallons of water from Cape Cod Bay each day, killing marine life and raising the bay’s water temperature. Cape Cod Bay Watch, an environmental watchdog organization, has cited the substantial groundwater contamination. Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has allowed the plant’s corporate owner, Entergy Corporation, based in Louisiana, to operate the facility with a Clean Water Act permit that expired 18 years ago.

Despite these serious safety and environmental concerns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relicensed the plant in 2012 for another 20 years. The recent publication, “Fukushima, the Story of a Disaster” by Union of Concerned Scientists authors describes an NRC alert to design faults but blind to external dangers such as weather events or flooding. Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko cast the sole dissenting vote in the five-member commission and advocates in public forums for the closure of Pilgrim and other aging reactors. Noting that all it takes is one bad day for catastrophe, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who presided over the Fukushima disaster, has called nuclear power uneconomical, unsafe and unethical.

Attorney General Martha Coakley and other state officials opposed the relicensing of Pilgrim until safety concerns were addressed. Experts reporting to her estimated that a catastrophic fire from the loss of water would cause $488 billion damage, 24,000 cancers and contamination downwind for 100 miles.

Against the catastrophic risks of a Pilgrim accident is the inconsequential effect of lost energy. Only a small percent of the electricity used in Massachusetts is generated by nuclear power. Indeed, such power was not missed during Pilgrim’s numerous shutdowns during the past few years. State Sen. Daniel Wolf maintains that conservation and renewable energy sources would allow for a phase-out of the state’s dependence on fossil fuels in the next 20 years.

The NRC lists Pilgrim as one of the worst-performing nuclear stations. In his February 23 meeting with local residents in Brewster, Wolf cited a recent visit to the plant, where he saw antiquated equipment with insufficient backup systems. As a pilot who regularly flies over the facility, he cited the reactor’s lack of security from possible air or sea attack. On a flight path to Boston, Pilgrim could be an attractive target for terrorists.

An important aspect of the Pilgrim risk is emergency preparedness. Neither Cape Cod nor points north, including Boston, seem to have a workable plan for radiological emergency in place. How would local populations be notified, sheltered or evacuated? How could evacuations of persons near the plant be coordinated with the likely traffic heading out of Boston and the Cape? What could prevent the chaotic gridlock of cars heading in both directions?

All 15 Cape Cod towns have called for Pilgrim’s closure. It’s time for Boston and its suburbs to join them in that effort – and for people who reside near other aging nuclear plants to take notice.

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