The Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth isn’t aging gracefully, and that’s reason to worry. Twice in less than three weeks the reactor had to be shut down as a safety precaution. Last Tuesday, operators pulled the switch after detecting an unexpected fluctuation in water levels. The prior stoppage, which lasted four days, was prompted by a malfunctioning valve that’s supposed to keep radioactive steam from leaking. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says neither incident put employees or the public in danger, they lend more credence to critics’ calls for an expedited decommissioning of the 44-year-old plant, which is now scheduled to go offline in the spring of 2019.
In announcing the impending closure last October, the plant’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., said cheap natural gas and the many millions of dollars needed for safety upgrades made it too expensive to keep generating electricity from the shore of Cape Cod Bay. The decision was made public shortly after regulators classified Pilgrim as one of the three worst-run nuclear stations in the country. At the time, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the Globe that the ranking meant Pilgrim and the other two plants “are one step removed from the column where they would be at risk of being shut down by the NRC.”
Company officials and federal regulators have said Pilgrim’s extended lame-duck status won’t affect maintenance or vigilance. But given the power plant’s history, the assurances provide little comfort. Unplanned shutdowns and other safety-related issues have long been business as usual at the 680-megawatt plant. For example, a little more than a month after Entergy said Pilgrim would close, federal inspectors found five violations during an inspection. A report on the problems didn’t offer details, saying that “disclosure to unauthorized individuals could present a security vulnerability.” In February of this year, Entergy said it fired a security officer after the NRC found the worker didn’t conduct mandatory patrols to check for fires — more than 200 times over a two-year period.
Together with the recent shutdowns, those incidents and others build a strong case for moving up Pilgrim’s stop date. It should be one of the first orders of business for consideration by the Nuclear Decommissioning Advisory Panel newly created by the state Legislature. The 21-member group will include residents from the Plymouth area, as well as government officials, energy experts, and a representative from the attorney general’s office. There’s much work to do. They, and millions of people who live in the vicinity, must come to terms with a stark reality of having a massive radioactive waste dump in the neighborhood for a long, long time.
The end of power generation at Pilgrim will signal the beginning of a decommissioning process that will take decades, and be complicated by the need to move thousands of spent fuel rods from a 1970s-era water-filled pool into dry cask storage. It’s an incredibly delicate, expensive, and slow operation that involves placing the fuel cylinders in super-fortified concrete containers, where they might stay for a century. Waiting for a revival of dormant plans to build a central nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is not an option. Neither is waiting nearly three more years for the shutdown to start.