Critics of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth — and there are many — have long portrayed it as a catastrophe waiting to happen. Their doomsday scenarios depict an accident or terrorist attack that causes a massive radiation leak, forcing a panicked evacuation of Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. But Entergy Corp.’s announcement Tuesday that the Louisiana-based company will shut down the Pilgrim plant by June 2019 — and probably earlier — was about an impending financial disaster, not safety. Cheap natural gas, a push to bring hydropower from Canada, and the huge investment needed to upgrade the 43-year-old plant all combined to turn a nuclear dinosaur into a white elephant. Entergy estimates Pilgrim will lose about $40 million this year, and the projections beyond that aren’t any better.
Unlike the closing of other kinds of businesses — like a retail store or factory — there is no sense of finality in Entergy’s decision to pull the plug on Pilgrim. If anything, it raises more questions, offers few answers, and will demand vigilance by federal regulators, state leaders, and local officials. For starters, Pilgrim remains online now and could keep generating power for nearly four more years. That’s a concern, especially since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month lowered the plant’s safety ranking following unplanned shutdowns and chronic problems with pressure valves, demoting it to one of the three worst-performing nuclear power facilities in the United States.
Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, said during a press conference in Plymouth that Entergy “will continue to work with the NRC under its enhanced oversight, with safety and security being our top priority.” Given the plant’s lame-duck status and dodgy track record, his scripted promise provides little comfort to those who live in the vicinity of Pilgrim.
Mohl said a permanent shutdown could come as soon as spring 2017 — if a scheduled refueling is scuttled — but even then, Pilgrim will hardly be history: Decommissioning takes decades. The most immediate worry is the security of several thousand spent fuel rods that sit in a water-filled pool built in the 1970s. Entergy has started transferring some rods to fortified concrete casks that can hold 360,000 pounds apiece. It’s unclear how the shutdown will affect that process, which, like everything associated with nuclear power procedures, is agonizingly slow. So-called dry cask storage has been used at other commercial nuclear plants for nearly 30 years, but the antinuclear coalition Cape Cod Bay Watch says the siting of the containers at Pilgrim, some only about 200 feet from the Atlantic Ocean, makes them vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However the old fuel is stored, it is staying put for a long time in what will become a nuclear graveyard — the government’s much-maligned plan to build a central waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada lost federal funding years ago.
Beyond safety issues, taking Pilgrim off the grid will drastically reduce the region’s clean energy output. It accounts for about 84 percent of Massachusetts’s noncarbon-emitting energy. Entergy says a gas-powered plant generating the same amount of electricity, enough to power 600,000 homes, would produce 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. The shutdown provides momentum for the renewable-energy bills filed by Governor Charlie Baker that would make it easier to bring in hydropower from Canada and increase incentives for solar power. It could also reinvigorate efforts to construct offshore wind turbines. Those initiatives, though laudable, don’t lessen the need to expand the region’s gas pipeline capacity. But natural gas proposals, like the 188-mile pipeline Kinder Morgan Inc. wants to construct through parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, face opposition from environmentalists and would cost ratepayers.
Locally, the closure will deliver a moderate economic blow to Plymouth, including the loss of many of the 600 full-time jobs at Pilgrim, but municipal officials say they have been preparing for the day when the plant would cease to operate. Prior to the state’s deregulation of the utility industry in the 1990s, money from Pilgrim covered 25 percent of the town’s budget, keeping taxes low and sparking what was essentially a subsidized growth spurt. As Plymouth’s economic base grew and diversified, the town became far less reliant on plant revenue. Today, the $9.25 million that Entergy contributes in lieu of taxes accounts for about 5 percent of the community’s $200 million annual budget, and the company will still have to make payments of an undetermined amount even after the reactor is turned off.
Speaking in Plymouth after breaking the news to Entergy employees this week, a grim-faced Mohl said closing the plant was “a choice of last resort.” But make no mistake, this ending is in many ways just a beginning. Spent nuclear fuel remains dangerous for 250,000 years.
Clarification: This editorial has been updated to note that the federal Department of Energy first proposed the Yucca Mountain storage facility. The NRC would have to sign off on a final plan.