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On a mild September day in 2012, Paul Rifkin asked a friend with a helicopter to help him perform an experiment. Rifkin, a retired restaurateur turned amateur photographer, wanted to capture aerial images of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which sits on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, a quick drive from his home. He had taken an interest in the facility a year and a half earlier, after an earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, caused a series of explosions and meltdowns in three coastal reactors—all nearly identical in design to the one at Pilgrim. Rifkin had recently joined the Cape Downwinders, a group of local residents concerned about the plant’s safety, and hoped to test assertions by a Pilgrim manager that the airspace above the plant was secure. The flyover photos he snapped that day suggested it wasn’t, but they also showed something else. On the site, near the reactor building, Entergy, the facility’s owner, had broken ground on a twelve-thousand-square-foot concrete pad. Rifkin and his fellow-activists would later learn that it was intended as storage space for the plant’s accumulating radioactive waste.

Pilgrim is one of the worst-rated nuclear facilities in the United States. Ever since it generated its first kilowatt of electricity, in December of 1972, it has been beset with mechanical failures and lapses in safety. In a single four-week stretch this summer, the plant was offline for a total of fifteen days because of a malfunctioning steam-isolation valve, elevated water levels in the reactor, and other problems. For years, Pilgrim’s detractors have kept steady pressure on Entergy and state officials through local protests, a sit-in at the governor’s office, and legal action. Last October, in a partial victory for activists, the company announced plans to shutter the plant, citing the expense of keeping it running in the face of cheap, abundant natural gas and increasingly competitive “renewable-energy resources.” The reactor is scheduled to go dark on May 31, 2019.


But that won’t end Pilgrim’s saga. Come June 1st, the plant will still host more than eight hundred tons of irradiated spent fuel. Most of the waste is currently stored in a forty-foot-deep pool of water, suspended four stories aboveground, next to the reactor core. The pool, which was designed to hold eight hundred and eighty fuel assemblies, now contains more than three times that number. (A federal regulatory waiver has allowed Entergy to pack the pool more densely than originally planned, a move repeated by operators across the country.) The National Academy of Sciences has warned that if the cooling system in a plant like Pilgrim failed, there would be little time before the water in the pool boiled away and exposed the radioactive rods to air. The resulting fire, the N.A.S. and anti-nuclear watchdogs have cautioned, could send across Cape Cod and northern New England many times the amount of radioactive cesium-137 released in the Chernobyl disaster. “Pools like the one at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station are a disaster waiting to happen,” Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told us in an e-mail.

In the past two years, Entergy has started the slow and expensive process of transferring some of the older, colder fuel rods—no longer potent enough to efficiently power the reactor, but still hazardous for millennia—into dry casks. The concrete-and-steel canisters, eighteen feet tall and weighing a hundred and eighty tons, have now begun to line up on Pilgrim’s concrete pad, a football field’s length from the Bay. Many in the scientific and activist communities see dry-cask storage as preferable to pools, but the fear among those in Plymouth and surrounding towns is that the casks will become a permanent fixture on the Cape. As John Mahoney, a town selectman in Plymouth, told us, “They’re going to stand on a concrete pad overlooking Massachusetts Bay for centuries, just like those statues on Easter Island.”

Recent history suggests that Mahoney has good reason to worry. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which obligated the federal government to start taking control of spent fuel by 1998. Today, nearly two decades later, virtually none of the waste has left the facilities where it was produced. It had once been expected to travel thousands of miles by rail and road to an underground repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But the site, a two-hour drive northwest of Las Vegas, proved scientifically unsound and politically unworkable. With waste still piling up at Pilgrim and sixty-some sites across the country, the federal government has been forced to pay the nuclear industry hundreds of millions of dollars each year for breach of contract—money that plant operators are not specifically required to spend on storage. “We are really much, much further behind than we were in 1983,” Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said.

The Department of Energy, the agency with ultimate responsibility for the nation’s roughly seventy thousand tons of nuclear waste, has a plan—or, at least, a plan for a plan. This spring and summer, the D.O.E. held forums in cities across the country, including Boston, to discuss a “consent-based siting initiative.” This initiative—not the identification of places to put the waste, per se, but a framework for gaining buy-in from a mistrustful public—could result in any number of storage scenarios. “We’re trying to continue making progress toward the development of what we call an integrated waste-management system,” John Kotek, the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, told us.

One option is consolidated interim storage. Under this plan, the spent fuel would be moved from plants in thirty states to a handful of regional, aboveground storage facilities—what Kevin Kamps, a waste specialist at the watchdog Beyond Nuclear, has called “parking-lot dumps.” There the waste would sit, on concrete pads similar to the one at Pilgrim, for twenty, forty, maybe even a hundred years, until the federal government finds a more permanent scheme. The D.O.E. sees this interim plan as a way to relieve communities like Plymouth of their waste burden (and the U.S. government of its payouts to the industry). But critics offer a weighty list of objections, chief among them that removing the waste from one community’s back yard requires putting it in another’s, creating more contaminated sites requiring future cleanup. The D.O.E. expects that some communities will step up and take the waste on anyway, but many people at this summer’s forums accused the agency of using public consent as a substitute for scientific and regulatory rigor.

Once sites are identified, then there’s the problem of transportation. Dry casks must be hauled on heavy, slow-moving trucks, or on freight trains, which at times pass through densely populated parts of the country. Moving the casks once is arduous and expensive enough, but the D.O.E.’s proposed solution—bringing them to a temporary way station, then to a final resting place—requires doing it at least twice. “Interim storage is, in my mind, a waste of time, money, and resources,” Gregory Jaczko, a physicist and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told us. Diane Turco, who retired early from her job as a special-education teacher to devote more time to the Cape Downwinders—she is now the organization’s president—doubts that the government could make the plan happen anyway. “We think it’s just a big show to placate the public,” she said. “We don’t see it going anywhere.” Some local officials and residents, recognizing that progress is liable to be slow, have asked the government to compensate them for serving as a de-facto nuclear dump.


In the meantime, the casks are stacking up, vulnerable not only to the powerful storms and rising seas that come with climate change but also to deliberate attack. A terrorist group could sabotage the plant’s power supply or cooling system, mount a direct assault on its personnel, fire a rocket from the Bay, or launch a suicide attack from the air—not such a difficult proposition, as Rifkin’s helicopter experiment proved. The susceptibility of the casks, stored out in the open, near the shore, has led Mary Lampert, a longtime environmental activist in the town of Duxbury, to dub the setup “Candlepin bowling for terrorists,” putting a New England spin on the easy strike. While the N.R.C. argues that casks provide “adequate protection,” the N.A.S. and nuclear watchdogs maintain that the massive containers could be better sited and better secured, sheltered within earthen and cement berms a safe distance from both the reactor building and the property’s borders.


But if any of this—safer storage of waste now, or better compensation in the future—is to happen, it will require significant attention from communities across the country. Makhijani, who has watched the ebb and flow of nuclear regulation for more than three decades, told us that the few years surrounding a plant’s closure are when the general public can exert the most influence on the decommissioning process and the disposition of the radioactive waste. He cited another Entergy facility, Vermont Yankee, whose Fukushima-style reactor was shut down in late 2014, and whose waste and decommissioning have received consistent scrutiny from local activists and lawmakers. “Vigilance does pay off,” Makhijani said.


The alternative, the status quo, seems unattractive to all concerned—from the company that wants the spent fuel off its property and off its books, to the nearby communities of Cape Cod that hope to someday get out from under what they see as a radioactive sword of Damocles, to a federal government legally obligated to solve America’s ever-growing nuclear-waste crisis. “If we don’t do something,” Allison Macfarlane, the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2012 to 2014, said, “if we don’t have a plan, there’s a one-hundred-per-cent guarantee that this stuff gets into the environment.” The grand heads of Rapa Nui that Selectman Mahoney saw as the centuries-old antecedent to Pilgrim’s dry casks could well crumble into the sea, the impassive victims of time and global warming. If the U.S. can’t find a safe, secure place for its radioactive waste, the earth likely has a plan of its own.

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