In March 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused a power outage at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. As a result, four reactors exploded, melting down three nuclear cores and releasing radiation from a fourth.
This disaster prompted former John Merck Fund Program Officer Anna Baker to investigate the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She discovered that the reactors were the same model – and had the same flaws – as those in Japan. During the Fukushima disaster, Japanese authorities evacuated a 50-mile radius around the plant. That same radius around the Pilgrim Plant is home to nearly 5 million people.
Anna, her neighbors and local advocacy organizations quickly banded together to highlight safety issues plaguing the Pilgrim plant, hoping to prevent a similar disaster in their backyards. This week, Pilgrim’s parent company, Entergy Corp, announced it would close the plant, citing in part the costs of complying with safety, public health and environmental regulations.
The nuclear reactors in question – manufactured by General Electric in the 1970s – have had safety issues since they were first produced. Three engineers even quit the company in protest of safety shortcomings on this specific model. The Pilgrim plant also has had numerous safety issues, including power outages and problems with a safety valve that prompted the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to downgrade the safety rating of the reactor, naming it one of the three least safe reactors in the country.
Anna and her neighbors created a coalition of 27 groups and more than 600 members to respond to these safety concerns. They gave cover to whistleblowers within the plant, organized opposition in local government, and monitored activities at the facility to ensure elected officials and regulators knew of ongoing violations at the plant. Without these dedicated individuals, it is hard to say if or when regulators would have confronted Pilgrim’s ongoing problems.
The coalition’s work isn’t over. The plant could potentially operate through June 2019, and decommissioning the plant and handling nuclear waste will present ongoing challenges to the community. Still, The John Merck Fund applauds the coalition for its role in decommissioning the Pilgrim plant, and we have confidence it will be an effective watchdog as this process continues.