Afterglow at issue with Pilgrim nuke plant

Radioactive elements undergo a chemical decay transforming the matter into a whole different element. Similarly, nuclear power plants receive a second life that extends long after the turbines stop spinning.

The post-retirement future of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is now at issue for regulators and the plant’s neighbors. Entergy, which owns the plant, wants to offload its property to Holtec International, a company that specializes in handling the leftover nuclear waste. If Holtec takes over the roughly 46-year-old plant on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, the company will gain more than just the spent fuel and the solemn responsibility to safely store it. Ratepayers have filled a decommissioning trust fund so that is now brimming with about $1 billion.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Maura Healey and Pilgrim Watch, a local group that has agitated for closure of the plant, filed petitions with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to intervene in the pending sale.

Reporter Miriam Wasser has spelled out the current situation and provided links to the relevant documents at WBUR. Healey asked for an adjudicatory hearing on the license transfer and expressed concern that the trust fund could prove inadequate to cover the cost of preparing the site and managing indefinitely the anticipated 61 dry casks for spent fuel containing more than 4,000 spent fuel assemblies.

Holtec contends it can decommission the plant and put the waste in dry cask storage within eight years, far faster than the 60-year timeframe Entergy laid out.

The policy for nuclear plants around the country is to store the radioactive waste on-site because, despite a lot of urging, there is no centralized repository for nuclear waste generated by power production. Some waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons program is stored in salt caverns 2,000 feet below ground in New Mexico, and there are as-of-yet-unrealized plans to build a more substantial underground nuclear waste storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Neighbors of Pilgrim have raised the alarm for years over the plant that is set to shut down by June 1, tracing connections between the local plant and the plant at the center of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. An earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster on Japan’s Pacific coast in March 2011 combined to kill 16,000 people and create lasting devastation and distrust in the area.

A hypothetical nuclear explosion at the plant in Plymouth could blanket much of New England in a harmful plume, according to local activist Diane Turco, who argues the dry cask storage area is too accessible to the public. In 2015, the NRC downgraded the plant to a safety rating just above the level when federal regulators would force it to shut down.

If this all sounds like a complicated and problematic way to keep the lights on, you are not alone. Even though nuclear power provides electricity without spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere, thereby matching up with the global goals agreed to at the Paris climate summit, its role has diminished. Two years ago the federal government predicted that nuclear power, which then made up 20 percent of electricity generation, would fall to 11 percent by 2050.

Once Pilgrim switches offline for good, the power grid will need to find new sources to make up for the hundreds of megawatts of carbon-free electricity production that the nuclear plant churned out.



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