Power Struggle, Part 1: Relicensing Pilgrim Nuclear

By Sean Corcoran

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Nov. 21, 2011

pilgrim nuclear power plant

The Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., opened nearly 40 years ago. Opponents have raised concerns since the disaster at a plant in Fukushima, Japan. (Courtesy of Entergy)


With the end of its 40-year license approaching in 2012, the owners of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth have applied for a 20-year extension. But opponents of the plant, including some local and state politicians, question the reactor's safety after three sister reactors in Japan experienced explosions and likely meltdowns this past year. There also is the lingering issue of a tightly packed spent-fuel storage pool at Pilgrim. Finally, there are concerns about the fact that hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors on Cape Cod would have nowhere to go in the event of an emergency. This WGBH News three-part series looks at these issues and others, while discussing how the context for plant relicensing has changed in light of the ongoing crises at Fukushima in Japan.


 
PLYMOUTH — Scott Allen, 54, set down his drink at the Seaside Club in Plymouth and picked up a letter to the editor sent to a local newspaper. The letter was signed by a Scott and Kathy Allen. But Scott said that neither he nor his wife Kathy wrote it.
 
“Especially if it came over on a computer, I didn't write it,” he said, chuckling. “OK?”
 
The letter appeared in the Cape Cod Times last month [read the letter] in support of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power plant. It reads that nuclear power is clean and safe; that Pilgrim provides more than 700 local jobs; and that if the plant closed, the loss in local taxes — about $8.5 million dollars a year — would lead to town layoffs.
 
For his part, Allen said that he didn't write the letter but that he agreed with it.
 
"I think that whoever wrote this has the same thoughts that I do,” he said, “but a different Scott and Kathy Allen, apparently, just a coincidental, similar name."
 
Not exactly. The letter was sent to the newspaper by Joyce McMahon, a PR professional with ties to Pilgrim's parent company, Entergy. McMahon said she sent it for a Scott Webber and his wife Kathy Allen-Webber, who live across town.
 
“They didn’t want to use their email address,” McMahon said. “And they asked us to submit it for them. Based on a typo, the last name was wrong. The gentlemen has a different last name from his wife so it came out Scott and Kathy Allen instead of Scott Webber and Kathy Allen."
 
The explanation spurred more curiosity. But no one answered a knock on the door at an address McMahon provided or returned a phone message requesting comment on the letter.
 
In any case, Pilgrim’s relicensing process, which has been running for 6 years and counting now, is a real political and legal fight. The fact that PR professionals are stewarding letters onto local editorial pages speaks to its magnitude.
 
Differences in opinion near and far

What’s clear is that many locals and Plymouth politicians do support the relicensing. But outside Plymouth, officials and citizens are concerned that Pilgrim is the same make and model as three reactors that experienced fires and explosions at Fukushima, Japan.
 
They worry about low levels of tritium, a cancer-causing, radioactive form of hydrogen; the groundwater at Pilgrim has tested positive for the substance at varying levels since 2007. They're concerned about the number of spent fuel rods stored at Pilgrim. Most of all, they're concerned about the power plant's age.

Sen. Wolf explains his concerns about relicensing Pilgrim. (10 mins. Right-click to download the mp3)

"I started asking people the question, ‘Go home tonight, look around your house and give me a call when you find a piece of technology in your house that you’re still using that’s 60 years old,’” said Sen. Dan Wolf of the Cape and islands. “I have yet to hear somebody really come back to me and say, ‘You know, this makes a lot of sense.’”
 
He added, “The speed with which we are advancing technologically makes it very difficult for me to understand how in 19 years we’re going to be well served in this region by a 59-year-old nuclear power plant.”
 
A substance in the ground, and no explanation

Opponents and nuclear power watchdogs say similar things happen when a nuclear reactor gets old as when a person does: pipes start leaking. The discovery of tritium is an example of that.

 

Joseph Lynch, Pilgrim’s licensing manager, said all the plant’s systems have been tested and found to be intact. It’s not known where the isotope came from but the amount is well below EPA drinking-water standards and it’s being found at diminishing levels, which he said indicates that there is not an active leak.
 
“The systems that we have at the plant that contain tritium by design contain much, much more, higher concentrations of tritium than what we are seeing in our wells,” he said. “If we had a leak from one of those systems it would be very apparent.”
 

In April, a frightening event

Criticism and concerns being voiced about Pilgrim increased both after the Fukushima disaster and after an error made at Pilgrim this past April led to an automatic shutdown.
 
US Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Neil Sheehan said the reactor began heating up too quickly during a restart.
 
“The unit was being brought back into service and they experienced some fluctuations in power that in our view certainly could have been avoided,” Sheehan said. “Given the years of training that’s involved with control room operators… they should not have allowed this to happen in the first place.”
 
When told of the heat-up and automatic shutdown, Scott Allen, the man who didn't write the letter to the newspaper, said that he's just a regular guy, a maintenance supervisor at a local mall, and that he doesn’t understand how anyone could be opposed to Pilgrim. He raised his family in its shadow of without any problems. To him, the automatic shutdown is an example of the system working.
 
“That just goes to prove that they are doing the best they can to make this thing work right and keep the place safe,” he said. “I mean, if those things didn’t shut down, or if it didn’t come out right at the end, you know, if we were still here, then we’d have issues.”
 
In testimony before the Legislature, energy officials said the lights would stay on in New England even without Pilgrim’s 677 megawatts. But opponents of Pilgrim said they expect it will be relicensed. In fact, some say they have resigned themselves to the idea that Pilgrim won’t be decommissioned until it breaks and is too expensive to fix, or until there is some type of accident. 


In the second part of the series, WGBH News looks at the 3,000-plus spent fuel rods now sit in a pool of water in the plant's attic, above the reactor. The pool was originally designed more than 40 years ago to hold only one-third of that amount. That segment airs on Nov. 22.

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