The Logic of Fearing Pilgrim by Brent Harold

Published May 28, 2013 in the Cape Cod Times

The movement to shut down Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth seems finally to be taking off. All 14 of the towns who have voted on it at town meetings this spring have voted to that effect. A poll shows a great majority of us afraid of Pilgrim. The demonstration in Plymouth on May 19 was the largest so far.

If ever a region had the legitimate right to cry NIMBY, Cape Cod and the Islands is it. If what happened in Fukushima were to happen here, we would all suffer the consequences of nuclear exposure. For the terrible meaning of this, look up Chernobyl and Fukushima online.

But unlike those tragic sites, where hundreds of thousands had to be evacuated, evacuation would not be possible for many Cape and Islanders. Hence the black humor bumper stickers, “Evacuation Plan: Swim East.”

“Between the devil and the deep blue sea,” indeed.

And when eventually rescued by whatever means, it might be possible never to return to a peninsula that, like Chernobyl and Fukushima, would be rendered indefinitely uninhabitable.

The chances of an accident here? Miniscule, reassures the NRC. Not to worry. Given the established track record of the Fukushima sort of reactor, which is also the Pilgrim sort: 4 in 34. (And presumably getting worse as these reactors age from 40-60 years.)

“Accident,” of course, needs an asterisk. Like oil spills and coal mine cave-ins, the infrequent but devastating meltdowns are not accidents in the usual sense but predictable consequences of choosing this sort of power, a cost of doing business. MIT scientists have estimated that at least four serious nuclear “accidents” would be expected over the next 35 years, an average of one every eight years worldwide.

But the insistence that Pilgrim be shut down goes way beyond NIMBY. Nuclear power has been problematic from the start. The issue of its viability is being fought worldwide.

On the one hand is France’s commitment to nuclear power as a way of achieving energy independence. Lacking much fossil fuel to abuse, France gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear plants and is going for more. They have decided to trust engineers to come up with a solution to the seemingly insoluble waste disposal issue.

Can 50 million Frenchmen be wrong? Maybe. Neighboring Germany is going in the opposite direction. They (like the U.S.) have never gotten past around 20 percent dependence on nukes and since Fukushima they have committed to replacing that with alternative sources such as solar, in which they have become a world leader.

The Cape and Islands’ own plight aside, the world has options.

The fact is, as Germany sees and France has chosen not to, we are not forced to accept the dysfunctional and frightening technology of nuclear power here or anywhere. As state Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, pointed out in a meeting in Wellfleet recently, we don’t really need Pilgrim’s 14 percent of all the commonwealth’s power. We are already committed to increasing the “green” portion. What better motivation than to replace that 14 percent with wind, solar and tidal.

A popular reason for learning to get along with nuclear power is the idea that nuclear power replaces fossil fuels and is therefore a good guy in the fight against climate change. But nuclear power is a “green” source only in a very perverted way of looking at it. The fight to shut down Pilgrim and the fight to combat climate change with benign, green alternatives are the same fight.

“Not in any backyard anywhere” would seem to be the logical, humane choice.

It comes down to how we want to live, here or anywhere else: Here the fear of what lies upwind (let alone an actual meltdown), when it begins to sink in, as it seems to be doing, changes everything. It is a pollution of our vaunted quality of life that makes another big box store seem a minor thing.

That most of us have lived apparently comfortably enough with Pilgrim for 41 years suggests a failure of imagination. It takes imagination to overcome denial, to think about the unthinkable. But also to imagine another alternative: a fear-free power source.

Brent Harold of Wellfleet, a former English professor, blogs at Email him

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