Letter by Jeff Berger: Plymouth taxpayer’s perspective

Posted Sep 30, 2015

I am chairman emeritus of Plymouth’s appointed Nuclear Matters Committee; the comments that follow are made solely from my perspective as a Plymouth taxpayer. Here goes:

It is perplexing, to say the least, to read about the current way in which Entergy, the owner-operator of the Pilgrim Nuclear plant here, is comporting itself. Since it has always said that it is doing everything humanly possible to make the plant a safely operated good neighbor, why does it now publicly stammer and say it may shut down rather than do exactly what it has always promised to do?

The NRC – in a stunning display of competence which most Plymouth taxpayers and Cape residents had long thought didn’t exist – has downgraded Pilgrim to one stop north of junk bond status (metaphorically speaking), opting for closer supervision designed to motivate Pilgrim to get its act together. The plant uses euphemisms to express that it is “reassessing” whether it wants to spend the money to operate safely but it continues to operate the plant even as it is “reassessing.”

What I haven’t quite figured out is whether it is playing chess with the NRC or Russian Roulette with everyone who works or lives with 50 miles of the plant. I have a hunch it’s both.

I am not amused. Not in the least. In the past I said to the Plymouth Board of Selectmen that Pilgrim would close sooner rather than later and that the town would fall off a financial cliff starting the moment shutdown was set. Selectman John Mahoney has said for years that the town wasn’t managing PILOT funds in a way that buffered it against the certainty of plant closure. But nothing has happened to create such a buffer. Nothing at all.

Meanwhile, Pilgrim continues to operate.

A year ago I wrote to Plymouth’s Old Colony Memorial newspaper about the NRC – which I neither admire nor respect – and about the plant. It is timely to repeat what I wrote at that time:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for overseeing the safe operation of America’s nuclear power plants.

For as long as any rational person can remember, however, the NRC has done nothing remotely resembling a good job. In fact it is packed with nuclear power industry insiders who all repeatedly puppet the pap heard constantly from industry spokespersons, who say nuclear plants are safe and everything is hunky dory. Despite occasional chairpersons who understand the real world, NRC chairpersons’ voices of reason are invariably drowned out by moronic votes by the rest of the NRC clique of commissioners.

Having closely observed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 12 years – and having observed Entergy’s Pilgrim Station for the same length of time – I know many plants are NOT safe and we DO have a lot to worry about, particularly right here in Plymouth.

First: Pilgrim is a very old nuclear power plant. Would you drive a dull, rusty 1970 Plymouth as your main car, trusting it to make long distance trips safely and securely in all kinds of weather, understanding that it has creaks and groans, leaks, holes in the floor, things that don’t work, and lots of failing parts? Even if you filled the tank (refueling) and checked the gauges (those that work), you still could not trust it to get you anywhere safely. Despite lots of maintenance and assurances from Pilgrim and the NRC, Pilgrim is un-debatably a 1970 Plymouth.

Second: The NRC has never met a plant it didn’t like. It has put Pilgrim at “closer observation” but that simply means crony backslaps might occur slightly less often. The NRC never gives any plants a real, hard, memorable whack upside the head. It is hardly reassuring.

Third: The NRC perpetually ignores huge known issues. It says elevated spent fuel pools (such as Pilgrim’s) are as safe as dry cask storage when, in fact, a renowned global security expert who is a member of the Nuclear Matters Committee here in Plymouth (among many other experts) publicly disagrees. The NRC’s ignorance on the vulnerability of elevated spent fuel pools is stunning.

Fourth: An Entergy official said recently that earthquakes are no worry for Pilgrim since Pilgrim has no nearby faults. The official is dead wrong and needs to do some fact-checking. Perhaps he never heard of the approximately 6.3 Richter Scale quake off Cape Ann in 1755. Were such a quake to occur again soon – as scientists increasingly expect – it would cause an estimated $5 billion in damage and at least hundreds of deaths, and I have a strong hunch those are colossal underestimations. Were the Boston area to have a big quake it would be felt here and Pilgrim would – change that, will – be at severe risk. And seismologists do say the Boston area is overdue for a major earthquake.

Fifth: Remember the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami? Other seismologists point to increased seismic activity in the North Atlantic and say it increases the likelihood of tsunamis here – an unsettling thought no matter where you live in Plymouth. And of course, Pilgrim is only a few feet above sea level as it is. That’s yet another vulnerability the NRC continues to ignore at our peril.

Sixth: Pilgrim has been cutting the size of its staff for some time. Do you really think having fewer people oversee a vast plant like Pilgrim as it ages helps assure its safe operation?

Seventh: Thanks to hydraulic fracturing (often shortened to “fracking) and other factors, the cost of natural gas is very low, making the cost of more expensive nuclear power uncompetitive. That creates a whole set of other very serious, dangerous, and unnerving circumstances related to the plant when it discontinues operations, which will likely be sooner than most people think.

Eighth: There are no spikes here of thyroid cancer, which is a well-known marker for cancer caused by radiation. But there are spikes of other things. I do not have 100 percent confidence that some of these are not aggravated by plant radiation.

Periodically in area newspapers, I’ve read articles from plant engineers and other employees that the Pilgrim plant is safe, well regulated, a major employer, and a major taxpayer.

The first two assertions are dead wrong; this is Plymouth, folks, not Utopia. Pilgrim is a major employer and a major taxpayer. But it’s still a 1970 Plymouth, an aging beast that is economically uncompetitive and in need of vast, incredibly expensive changes to make it truly safe and competitive, if that’s even possible – and such changes aren’t bloody likely.

Bottom line: We are not at all well protected by the stunning ignorance of the NRC. And Pilgrim only does what the NRC requires in its regulations.

If anybody out there is comfortable with what is happening at Pilgrim, you are clearly not paying attention.

Jeff Berger, Plymouth

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One Response to Letter by Jeff Berger: Plymouth taxpayer’s perspective

  1. Susan Carpenter says:

    I commend Mr. Berger’s comments regarding the relationship between Plymouth, Entergy, and the NRC. Both he and selection John Mahoney are voices of reason who have long seen the writing on the wall. I attended the recent Nuclear Matters Committee and was surprised to hear members speak as if 2032 was the date Plymouth would shut down, not the near future as Entergy officials have mentioned.