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Closure of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station Won't End Controversy

Photo courtesy of ©Entergy Nuclear
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, MA, is slated to shut down by the year 2019.

Entergy Corporation announced last week that Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth will shut down for good by the year 2019, but that’s far from the end of questions or concerns about the plant. In fact, legislators and activists who've been calling for the plant's shutdown say the closure will eliminate few health and safety risks, and will add some new ones. 

Living Lab sat down with David Noyes, the director of regulatory assurance and performance improvement for Entergy Corporation, and Mary Lampert, director of the citizen watchdog group Pilgrim Watch, to get their takes on some of the hottest (no pun intended) topics of debate.

On the timing of the shutdown by 2019:

David Noyes: “The decision [of when to shut down] is based on the ability of Entergy to fulfill its power contracts. So it’s the ability beyond 2017 to identify other sources of power that can fulfill its obligations without the continued operation of Pilgrim.”

Mary Lampert: “It is past its use-by date. And there is a clear danger for it to continue to operate. If they are losing money on this reactor, it’s highly unlikely they are going to go all the way in putting the improvements that are necessary in an old reactor…For example, take the Fukushima lessons learned. The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] came up with a series of fixes with due dates of when they are to be implemented in 2016 and 2017. So the question is, is Entergy prepared to spend that money?”

David Noyes: “I can understand how people may look at it, but it’s an issue of the responsibility of the individuals that work at the plant. There are 633 individuals that work there 83 of which are residents of Cape Cod. Those individuals are committed to the safe operation of the station. We have two inspectors at the plant full time, we expect that there will be additional inspection hours as a result of the current regulatory standing, and we have no indication that the NRC will lessen the requirements for continued operation.”

Regarding the decommissioning fund:

David Noyes: “The decommissioning fund at Pilgrim is among the top four in the industry in regard to being fully funded, as required by NRC regulations. In a report this fall, the NRC determined that Pilgrim would have $1.2 billion available for decommissioning in 2032, which by all measures is sufficient to be able to conduct and complete decommissioning of the plant.”

Mary Lampert: “It is very clear that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a fatal error in their requirements in how much money should be put aside. Instead of looking at each reactor, site specific, and determining how much each reactor itself would require, they have a generic amount, which has been shown to be woefully inadequate, sticking taxpayers in the states with the extra charges to pay to clean up.”

Regarding spent fuel storage:

David Noyes: “As part of decommissioning… the fuel in the reactor vessel is fully off-loaded to the spent fuel pool. The fuel in the pool is then transitioned to dry cask storage. There’s a chance to accelerate the existing dry casks storage campaign. The longest timeline would be five years after the plant is shut down, to put that last set of fuel rods in dry cask storage… with a final repository established by 2048.”

Mary Lampert: “Obviously what we want for safety is the spent fuel pool to be emptied as soon as possible. As the attorney general of Massachusetts pointed out, the densely packed pool is vulnerable to loss of water and fire that could result in $488 billion in damages, 24,000 latent cancers, and contaminate hundreds of miles downwind. That’s serious.”

David Noyes: "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and reputable scientific sources indicate that wet fuel storage is every bit as safe as dry cask storage."

Pilgrim's plans for protecting surrounding communities in case of an emergency are another persistent point of contention. Representative Sarah Peake has filed a bill to expand the emergency planning zone to include Cape Cod. She told Living Lab that she's asked for that legislation to be put on hold, while she learns more about the decommissioning process.

One aspect of Pilgrim's closure that has raised concerns is how New England will meet its clean energy goals in the future. After all, the nuclear plant produces no direct carbon emissions. Janet Gail Besser, vice president of policy and government affairs for the New England Clean Energy Council says the state needs to raise or eliminate the net metering cap, which she says is holding back solar energy development. The net metering cap limits how much homeowners can "run the meter backwards," that is, how much power they can sell back to the grid at retail rates.

Besser also says that Massachusetts should enter into long-term contracts with clean energy providers like wind and hydropower developers, which can be located in northern New England or in Canada.

Janet Gail Besser of New England Clean Energy Council

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