Going Inside Pilgrim Nuclear

As Plymouth, Mass., power plant shuts down for every-other-year refueling, necn gets a look

For close to 43 years, the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., has been generating enough electricity on a typical day to power over 500,000 homes – and also generating plenty of controversy.

Critics like Pilgrim Watch and Cape Downwinders have argued over and over again that Pilgrim should be shut down, that no workable plans exist to evacuate Cape Codders over just two bridges if a catastrophic meltdown ever occurred, and that the March 2011 tsunami disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan -– of the same design as Pilgrim – demonstrated how unacceptable the plant’s risks are.

But at the same time, the plant has been churning out reliable and carbon-free power for those 500,000 homes year after year, supporting 600 jobs onsite and close to $10 million a year in tax revenues for Plymouth. And this month, Pilgrim is delivering a unique and welcomed stimulus to the regional economy as owner Entergy Nuclear brings in 1,000 technicians and specialists from all over the country for a once-every-other-year refueling and maintenance blitz.

Entergy allowed NECN to come in for a tour, which requires getting through a security turnstile with palm readers that verify workers swiping identification cards are who they say they are, a metal detector, a station for outfitting yourself with radiation monitors, and an airlock chamber meant to keep the air from the reactor building inside. What we were not allowed to film: Numerous secured perches from which plant security personnel with automatic weapons could open fire on any intruders who make it in.

The 1,000 workers installing new fuel, replacing components, and checking valves and gauges and safety mechanisms come from all over the country – like operator Dale Millham, who’s usually helping Entergy run a nuclear reactor in southwestern Michigan, and Hubert Mims, who is up from Baxley, Georgia.

It’s such an influx that places like the Plymouth Moose Lodge are offering an “Entergy Outage Refuel Special” discounted membership for visiting workers. “It’s a great thing for the town of Plymouth,’’ said the lodge’s Ray Tompkins, “because it’s filling hotel rooms, it’s filling restaurants,’’ and at a slow time of year for tourism.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled three years ago that Pilgrim can be run for another 17 years. What Pilgrim people try to stress: they are constantly working to make the plant even safer, including currently building new backup cooling-water systems with lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdown disaster.

Regulatory assurance manager Chip Perkins, who led us on the tour, said, “If we had the largest airliner you could imagine, the 747, crash into the side of the building, it wouldn't damage it -- no damage, at least not in the primary containment shell,’’ four-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls surrounding the reactor chamber.

It’s hard to imagine controversy ever goes away for Pilgrim, or what-if concerns about the chances of any kind of accident or disaster ever happening.

But considering the power, the jobs, the economic benefits, Kevin O’Reilly, executive director of the Greater Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, said: “As somebody who grew up here, as somebody who raised his kids here, they are a part of the community … I know there are folks that are concerned, everybody is concerned about safety. But I know a lot of the people that work in that plant, and I know they're doing the best job they can.’’

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