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Five years: On this day in 2019, night shift shut down Pilgrim nuclear reactor for the last time

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Five years ago today, then-owner Entergy shut down the nuclear reactor at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station for the last time.

Some people who worked at Pilgrim — and activists who called for it to close — are still involved in public discussion about the fate of Pilgrim today, as current owner Holtec International dismantles the plant under the terms of a settlement with the state.

Longtime employee David Noyes, who started at Pilgrim in 1989 and still works there — now as a compliance manager for Holtec — remembers being at the plant on the last day of operations.

“That day was kind of — you know, it was a ‘down’ moment for a lot of us that had been involved in safe operation of the plant for decades, but the beginning of our commitment to decommission it,” he said.

When Entergy announced the impending closure four years earlier, it cited financial reasons, including low energy prices, state policies that excluded nuclear energy from subsidies for renewables, and the cost of making improvements to safety, reliability, and security at the plant.

Pilgrim had been under enhanced federal oversight for safety problems, but the plant returned to normal oversight about three months before the final shutdown.

The night shift powered-down the reactor on May 31, 2019.

“It was kind of an end of an era for a lot of us that had been there for a period of time,” Noyes said. “There were a lot of people on site that were very committed to the safe operation of the plant.”

Mary Lampert has served as a watchdog for health and safety issues related to Pilgrim since she moved to Duxbury in 1986. She says she’s not anti-nuclear; she’s pro-safety.

While Entergy’s decision to close was an economic one, she said, the public played a role by pushing the state to exclude nuclear power from clean energy programs.

“Public action is very important,” she said.

Five years after the shutdown, the debate over the safety of nuclear energy — and what to do with its radioactive byproducts still sitting in Plymouth — is far from over.

Pilgrim was, and remains, controversial, because of public concerns about the health and safety risks of radioactive materials and the burden of nuclear waste. Meanwhile, supporters of nuclear energy — particularly as an alternative to fossil fuels — contend that the opposition is driven more by fear than facts.

Many of the buildings at Pilgrim have been demolished, and most of the internal parts of the reactor vessel have been removed. Buildings that house the reactor process are scheduled for demolition between 2033 and 2035.

Spent nuclear fuel will be stored on the Plymouth property indefinitely.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.