When Cape Cod’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station closes, in 2019, it will still be home to some eight hundred tons of spent fuel. COURTESY PAUL RIFKIN On a mild September day in 2012, Paul Rifkin asked a friend with a helicopter to help him perform an experiment. Rifkin, a retired restaurateur turned amateur photographer, wanted to capture aerial images of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which sits on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, a quick drive from his home. He had taken an interest in the facility a year and a half earlier, after an earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, caused a series of explosions and meltdowns in three coastal reactors—all nearly identical in design to the one at Pilgrim. Rifkin had recently joined the Cape Downwinders, a group of local residents concerned about the plant’s safety, and hoped to test assertions by a Pilgrim manager that the airspace above the plant was secure. The flyover photos he snapped that day suggested it wasn’t, but they also showed something else. On the site, near the reactor building, Entergy, the facility’s owner, had broken ground on a twelve-thousand-square-foot concrete pad. Rifkin and his fellow-activists would later learn that it was intended as storage space for the plant’s accumulating radioactive waste.
Pilgrim is one of the worst-rated nuclear facilities in the United States. Ever since it generated its first kilowatt of electricity, in December of 1972, it has been beset with mechanical failures and lapses in safety. In a single four-week stretch this summer, the plant was offline for a total of fifteen days because of a malfunctioning steam-isolation valve, elevated water levels in the reactor, and other problems. For years, Pilgrim’s detractors have kept steady pressure on Entergy and state officials through local protests, a sit-in at the governor’s office, and legal action. Last October, in a partial victory for activists, the company announced plans to shutter the plant, citing the expense of keeping it running in the face of cheap, abundant natural gas and increasingly competitive “renewable-energy resources.” The reactor is scheduled to go dark on May 31, 2019.
But that won’t end Pilgrim’s saga. Come June 1st, the plant will still host more than eight hundred tons of irradiated spent fuel. Most of the waste is currently stored in a forty-foot-deep pool of water, suspended four stories aboveground, next to the reactor core. The pool, which was designed to hold eight hundred and eighty fuel assemblies, now contains more than three times that number. (A federal regulatory waiver has allowed Entergy to pack the pool more densely than originally planned, a move repeated by operators across the country.) The National Academy of Sciences has warned that if the cooling system in a plant like Pilgrim failed, there would be little time before the water in the pool boiled away and exposed the radioactive rods to air. The resulting fire, the N.A.S. and anti-nuclear watchdogs have cautioned, could send across Cape Cod and northern New England many times the amount of radioactive cesium-137 released in the Chernobyl disaster. “Pools like the one at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station are a disaster waiting to happen,” Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told us in an e-mail.
In the past two years, Entergy has started the slow and expensive process of transferring some of the older, colder fuel rods—no longer potent enough to efficiently power the reactor, but still hazardous for millennia—into dry casks. The concrete-and-steel canisters, eighteen feet tall and weighing a hundred and eighty tons, have now begun to line up on Pilgrim’s concrete pad, a football field’s length from the Bay. Many in the scientific and activist communities see dry-cask storage as preferable to pools, but the fear among those in Plymouth and surrounding towns is that the casks will become a permanent fixture on the Cape. As John Mahoney, a town selectman in Plymouth, told us, “They’re going to stand on a concrete pad overlooking Massachusetts Bay for centuries, just like those statues on Easter Island.”