Pilgrim’s nuclear waste, like that from other nuclear power plants around the U.S., was supposed to be sent to a deep geological repository offsite, funded by a fee imposed on electricity consumers. The proposed storage site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, was cancelled in 2010, and there is currently no other alternative. Entergy’s nuclear waste is stranded at Pilgrim and could be there for decades or hundred of years (or longer!).
Tons of nuclear waste is now being stored at Pilgrim – generated by over 40 years of making nuclear power. Most of the nuclear waste is stored in a dangerous “wet pool” (aka, spent fuel pool) inside the reactor building. Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool was originally designed to hold 880 fuel assemblies, but now – after the 2015 refueling and filling three dry casks – holds 3,162. This is about 4x more than it was originally designed to hold.
Since it has run out of room in its wet pool, Entergy has built a long-term, dry cask nuclear waste storage facility on the shore of Cape Cod Bay. Three casks have been filled to date.
What Happens After Shutdown?
If the long-term “SAFSTOR” decommissioning process is chosen and allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Pilgrim would technically have the option to leave high-level nuclear waste in its overcrowded spent fuel pool for up to 60 years. However, Entergy probably won’t do this – it’s a financial benefit not to. The pool will likely be emptied 5-10 years after closure. Even so, the option to leave the fuel in the pool for 60 years does exist, and it’s important to ensure that this does not happen. We will work to see that all high-level nuclear waste in Pilgrim’s wet pool be moved into dry cask storage as soon as possible.
The 2015 photo above (courtesy of Paul Rifkin) shows Pilgrim’s dry cask project (circled, right) sited as close as 106 feet from the shoreline. The first 3 casks were filled and placed on the concrete pad in early 2015. About 100 of these casks will be needed to hold all of Pilgrims 40+ years’ worth of nuclear waste. The white containers (left) are “low-level” radioactive waste storage containers, located only about 30 feet away from the coastal bank. At least one of these containers currently holds radioactive waste and many more will likely be filled during decommissioning. We are also working to see that the nuclear waste storage areas are robust and properly sited farther away from the Cape Cod Bay shoreline.
In an Oct. 25, 2015 interview, Arnie Gunderson from Fairewinds said, “You build power plants near water because you have to cool them, and you build nuclear waste storage sites away from water” because of the threat of radioactive materials reaching it.
Even though Pilgrim will be shutting down in the near future, the nuclear waste is not going anywhere. Pilgrim’s nuclear waste storage areas are located too close to the shoreline and only about six feet above the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) flood level. According to NRC rules, Pilgrim’s nuclear waste may remain in Plymouth for decades, if not hundreds of years (or longer!). Both sites are currently sited within reach of rising sea levels, coastal storms, and saltwater degradation, creating a potential source of further contamination, long after Pilgrim shuts down. As climate change takes hold and sea level rise and other coastal hazards escalate, problems will be more prominent within a decade. Read more about our work on climate change issues >>
We have supported a citizen lawsuit since 2013, which seeks public review of Entergy’s dry cask project under Plymouth’s zoning by-laws. The purpose is to see that the dry cask storage facility is properly sited and moved farther away from Cape Cod Bay, which was approved in 2014 with minimal review by the Town of Plymouth’s building inspector. The final Land Court trial should take place in late summer 2016. Learn more about the case >>
Background and Chronology of the Zoning Appeal
Entergy’s zoning violations were uncovered by citizens in December 2012. In April 2013, local residents filed a legal appeal challenging Entergy’s failure to get a special permit for the nuclear waste dump under local zoning laws. Read the zoning appeal >>
On July 24, 2013, the Plymouth Zoning Board voted 3-2, allowing Pilgrim Nuclear to continue work on a new nuclear waste storage facility without a special permit. Listen to NPR story here. This vote means that the public is cut out of the process. Without a special permit, local residents are denied the opportunity to review Entergy’s plans and to ask for conditions on how the nuclear waste storage facility is sited, built and operated. Read the decision >>
On August 21, 2013, the appeal on whether Pilgrim needs a special permit for its nuclear waste storage facility was taken to the next level – Massachusetts Land Court. The case should be heard sometime in 2013. Read more: Dry cask storage permit decision headed to court >>
On August 14, 2014, Entergy was delivered a blow in the case by the the group of Mass. citizens and public interest lawyers involved. The group scored a major victory when the Mass. Land Court rejected Entergy’s attempts to dismiss the case for lack of standing. The court found that certain citizen plaintiffs residing within 2 mi. of the plant had standing based on the diminution of their property values that will result from the construction of the storage facility and continued operation of the plant. Read more: Earthrise deals blow to nuclear power plant in Massachusetts >>
The case is moving forward and the trial date is set for August 2016. Ultimately, if successful, the decision to require a special permit (and potentially impose conditions on the project) will come back to the Town of Plymouth.
Under local zoning laws, the Town of Plymouth can and should impose conditions on Entergy’s special permit to ensure that the nuclear waste dump is properly sited, maintained and operated – including moving the dry cask storage facility to higher ground and further away from Cape Cod Bay.
Nuclear Waste Summary
The best option of course is for all of Pilgrim’s nuclear waste – both high-level and low-level – to be removed completely from the site. This, however, is a long way away. There is currently nowhere for Pilgrim’s nuclear waste to go. Pilgrim’s waste will be stored on the shore of Cape Cod Bay for an indefinite amount of time, which is why it is so important to ensure it is properly sited and secure until the day that a federal repository is finally chosen and developed. We will do this via the zoning litigation discussed above and by advocating for better flooding and seal level rise site assessments.
 Beyea J. 2006. Report to the MA Attorney General on the potential consequences of a spent-fuel-pool fire at the Pilgrim or Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Consulting in the Public Interest. 35 pp.