Friday, June 24, 2011
A Pilgrim power plant reaction

Startling revelations by The Associated Press and published here in the Times — that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, supposedly the public's watchdog, has worked hand-in-glove with the nuclear energy industry to weaken safety rules and keep aging power plants on line — are especially troubling to those of us who live east of one of the oldest nuclear power plants in the world.

A group of legislators toured the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth last month. As we walked through, I remembered the early promise of nuclear power: A world in which electricity would be so cheap and plentiful that meters would be obsolete. And with this bounty would come a profound freedom, a near-infinite source of power that would allow all forms of business growth and personal exploration.

That set me to thinking about the irony of the Pilgrim name, because of course the Pilgrims came to the New World in search of just these dreams; freedom to define and redefine themselves, to take advantage of an environment that promised no limits on exploration and growth. After a brutal first winter in Provincetown, they plied the coast to a more inviting harbor in Plymouth to practice what they preached, sailing past the outcrop where the plant now sits.

As we toured the facility, I found dedicated people clearly doing their best. But just as clearly, Pilgrim is not immune from serious problems found at sister plants (also with ironic names) like Indian Point outside New York City, or Oyster Creek near Philadelphia. Pilgrim is 40 years old, has operated much longer than expected, and its owner Entergy hopes to win long-term relicensing despite the following facts:

  • Pilgrim is storing more than 3,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, submerged in water, in a tank sitting atop the plant that was originally intended to hold 800. These fuel rods are many times more radioactive than the reactor core itself.
  • Pilgrim's design, very similar to Fukoshima's, is first generation if not obsolete, replaced by technology and construction that creates electricity and contains radioactivity more safely.
  • Effective evacuation in the event of a disaster seems impossible for Cape Codders, given that pretty much everyone on our side of the bridges would be forced to head toward the plant to try to escape it — the alternative being, as Truro artist Susan Baker put it years ago on a popular T-shirt, "Swim East."
  • There still is no solid understanding of the lessons of Fukoshima, not only whether multiple failures could lead to a similar situation here but also why unexpected spikes in radioactivity in the water now cooling the crippled reactors have forced a halt to the attempted cleanup.

All that said, let's be honest about other Pilgrim realities:

  • This plant supplies a huge amount of electricity, which we all use. General consensus is that if Pilgrim were shut down, our region would still have enough generating capacity to keep lights on and businesses humming, but there would be an immediate trade-off: We'd use more carbon fuel, with its own profound environmental and economic impacts.
  • This plant supports around 650 year-round jobs, and buttresses Plymouth with a solid tax base.

Are these realities legitimate reasons for wanting to keep the plant up and running? Absolutely.

Do they trump safety concerns? Absolutely not.

So let's back away from easy positions and platitudes about Pilgrim. Instead, we should initiate a dialogue about the plant's future that acknowledges three things:

First, the goal should be to decommission as soon as feasible.

Second, an economic redevelopment plan should be created that preserves jobs and tax base.

Third, conservation, efficiency, renovation, and decentralized, alternative energy production must be our way up and out.

How could the site transform? How can we retool and redefine our future? How do we find a way to keep those fuel rods safe and that radioactivity contained (for a very long time)?

With everyone at the table — community and political leaders, Entergy, smart-growth business thinkers, anti-nuclear activists — we can find an original path that would do more than serve our communities today. We would define a sustainable future, a vision of both collaboration and independence that would have made the Pilgrims proud.

Yes, these are daunting challenges, but they beg famous questions: "If not now, when? And if not us, who?"

Dan Wolf, a Democrat, represents the Cape and Islands in the Massachusetts Senate.