Pilgrim Power Plant Operating with Expired Permit

Coalition says requiring nuclear facility to use modern technology would lessen the environmental impact on Cape Cod Bay and better protect a body of water that is vital to the local economy


PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Broken promises and financial interests are polluting Cape Cod Bay. For nearly two decades, federal and state authorities have allowed the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to operate with an expired Clean Water Act permit.

Two dozen public-health and environmental groups find it unacceptable that a power plant on the shore of an ecologically rich waterbody that hosts a diverse array of habitats is allowed to continue to use technology from the 1960s. Last month, this statewide coalition issued a report that “exposes the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to properly regulate the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station under federal and state environmental laws.”

The coalition is asking the agencies to suspend Entergy Corp.’s water pollution permit, said Meg Sheehan, a volunteer attorney with the Cape Cod Bay Watch, because it’s allowing the continued pollution of the bay and destruction of marine ecosystems — in violation of the very basis of the Clean Water Act.

The town of Plymouth, on Cape Cod Bay, has been home to the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station since the facility opened in 1972.

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station generates electricity by boiling water using nuclear fission, which creates steam. The steam runs turbines that make electricity. The cooling water the plant needs for condensing the steam back into a liquid state comes from Cape Cod Bay. Two pumps provide a continuous supply of bay water for cooling.

When the plant pumps in water from the bay, Sheehan said, it kills marine life that either gets trapped on the intake screens (impingement) or gets pulled through the screens into the internal piping. After Pilgrim uses the seawater for cooling — about 350,000 gallons a minute — the water is pumped back into the bay, heated and polluted. This water is some 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter — the permit allows for a maximum temperature of 102 degrees — when it returns to the bay and it contains chemicals such a corrosion inhibitors, chlorine and radioactive materials. These discharges are part of the facility’s routine operations.

The federal Clean Water Act requires EPA to review permits every five years to ensure industrial polluters are using the “best available technology” to minimize environmental and public-health impacts. When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972 — the same year Pilgrim went online — the law was intended to reduce industrial pollution by constantly requiring better technology and controls.

The 24-member coalition’s report shows that Entergy’s Clean Water Act permit expired in 1996 and is based on technology introduced five decades ago. Under this expired permit, Entergy is allowed to take up to 510 million gallons of water from Cape Cod Bay daily.

The 41-page report reveals the contents of thousands of pages of internal government agency documents and relies on Entergy’s own reports to highlight the environmental impact being caused by the power plant’s outdated cooling system. The report claims about two-thirds of the heat energy produced at the plant is dumped into Cape Cod Bay as waste heat. The rest is converted into electricity for consumers. At this rate, Sheehan said, Pilgrim is about as efficient as a typical coal-fired power plant.

Better technology exists and the EPA and DEP should have required it long ago, Sheehan said. Until they issue a new Clean Water Act permit, the nuclear power plant shouldn’t be allowed to operate, she added.

The coalition notes that these wasteful operations are sanctioned under the outdated permit. Sheehan said the EPA and the DEP continue to allow Entergy to use an inefficient system for cooling water— similar to the system once used at the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, which was upgraded several years ago at a cost of about $500 million — instead of requiring a more efficient closed-loop system.

Sheehan said Entergy’s use of Cape Cod Bay for cooling its power plant is supposed to be tightly regulated, to make sure Pilgrim uses the best technologies available to reduce environmental harm. The agencies aren’t doing their job, she said.

“The Clean Water Act was never intended to allow industry to continue to pollute with outdated technology,” said Sheehan, noting that Entergy’s outdated power plant is the largest polluter of Cape Cod Bay.

To put Pilgrim’s wastefulness and inefficiency into perspective, the coalition report notes that the amount of heat energy Entergy dumps into Cape Cod Bay every year, about 42 trillion BTUs, is enough to heat 437,800 homes annually — more than four times the number of households on the Cape and the Islands and more than two times the number of households in Plymouth County.

Sheehan, a Cambridge-based public interest environmental lawyer for the Earthrise Law Center and the lead author of the report, which was two years in the making, traveled to the EPA Region 1 (New England) office in Boston to examine the agency’s Pilgrim file. “I was astounded to find that the EPA has largely ignored this huge file for 20 years,” she said.

Under the Clean Water Act, Entergy is required to submit monthly discharge reports to the EPA. Sheehan said she found dozens of these reports in unopened envelopes in the Pilgrim file. The longtime environmental attorney who once worked as an enforcement lawyer for the Massachusetts attorney general also said she found violations that dated back years.

In 2012, Sheehan said the EPA promised it would have Pilgrim’s permit revised by the end of the year. It made the same promise for the end of 2013.

“It’s obvious this matter isn’t a priority for the EPA or the DEP,” said Sheehan. “The EPA has done nothing but renege on promises. No enforcement, just promises and excuses.”

The EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment from ecoRI News. Edmund Coletta, director of DEP’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail that EPA Region 1 is the lead agency for Pilgrim discharge issues.

“For the last few years, MassDEP has been working with EPA Region 1 to draft a new discharge permit for Pilgrim,” he wrote. “A major part of that work is a cooling water intake analysis that is currently being completed by the EPA. Once that analysis is finished, the draft permit will be made available for public comment. In the meantime, the current discharge permit remains in force.”

Seafood stew
Coalition members claim it’s well documented that Entergy’s current operation causes marine degradation and pollution of Cape Cod Bay. They say the crux of the problem is the plant’s “once-through” cooling system, which draws in and kills plankton, fish and other marine life.

“Pilgrim’s seawater intake system has been impacting fisheries in western Cape Cod Bay for years,” said Jo Ann Muramoto, senior scientist at the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, in a June 8 coalition press release. “The discharge of heated seawater back into the bay is likely causing further stress to local marine ecosystems that are also dealing with ocean warming due to climate change.”

Species such as krill and other plankton, cod, mackerel and lobster have been found to be particularly vulnerable to warming water temperatures, according to last month’s report.

The report claims tens of millions of fish and billions of planktonic organisms — the foundation of the marine food web — are killed by the cooling system annually. Fish and shellfish are killed when they are drawn onto Pilgrim’s intake screens, and smaller marine life such as the eggs and larvae of fish and shellfish and planktonic organisms are killed when they are drawn through the screens and into the cooling water system, where they are exposed to hot water and chemicals and battered by mechanical equipment, according to the report.

One of the world’s most endangered marine mammals, the North Atlantic right whale, uses Cape Cod Bay as a feeding area and is frequently found near Pilgrim. Much of the bay is designated “critical habitat” under federal law for the endangered species. NOAA Fisheries has proposed expanding the designated area to include the entire bay.

From 1980 to 2007, 73 species of fish and 18 taxa of invertebrates were recorded during system sampling, according to a May 17, 2012 letter from the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In that letter, NOAA noted that the NRC claimed the losses due to impingement in the Pilgrim system were less than 1 percent of the population for each of the recorded species, with the exception of cunner and rainbow smelt.

“Nothing at Pilgrim makes less sense than the fisheries Cuisinart the EPA allows Entergy to operate,” Ed DeWitt, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, one of the coalition’s 24 organizations, said in last month’s press release. “Taxpayers spend a billion dollars a year on fisheries management and protection. We might as well shred the money in the Pilgrim cooling system along with all the fish being killed.”

Record setting
The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station was built in 1972 by Boston Edison at a cost of $231 million. Before the plant was built, state regulators ordered Boston Edison to install a closed-cycle cooling water system that would cause less environmental damage and comply with state law. Boston Edison sued to prevent having to install such a system, winning the case and installing the cheaper once-through system still in use today.

Louisiana-based Entergy bought the facility in 1999. Entergy Corp. has annual revenues of more than $12 billion, according to the corporation’s 2014 annual report. The total compensation for Entergy Corp. CEO Leo Denault in fiscal 2014 was $8.2 million.

Pilgrim has the capacity to produce up to 690 megawatts of electricity, which it sells to the New England power grid. The power plant also is a vital part of the regional economy, according to a recent report by the Center for Economic Development (CED) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

As of February, there were 586 employees at Pilgrim, with a payroll of about $55 million and a weekly wage of $1,805, according to the CED report. This represents 2.5 percent of the jobs held in Plymouth and 5.3 percent of the wages paid in Plymouth. Pilgrim’s average weekly wage is 50 percent higher than the state average, according to the 71-page report.

The coalition’s report, however, alleges Pilgrim has been one of the worst performing commercial nuclear reactors in the United States since the early 1980s. In 1982, the NRC penalized Boston Edison $550,000 for violating regulations. Four years later, in May 1986, Pilgrim was ranked one of the nation’s most unsafe reactors. The NRC closed the plant from 1986 to 1988 because of mismanagement and operating errors that resulted in an accident that released excessive radiation into the surrounding community.

Despite the power plant’s use of outdated technology and poor record, in 2012 the NRC extended Pilgrim’s license to 2032. A year later, the NRC further downgraded Pilgrim because of operating failures and ranked it among one of the 22 worst performing reactors in the country. The NRC has since ranked Pilgrim one of the 10 worst performing U.S. reactors.

Three years ago, a group of local residents filed notice of intent to sue Entergy for violations of the Clean Water Act. Since 1996, there have been 33,253 violations of the Clean Water Act at the Pilgrim station, according to a letter sent to the company and federal officials by the group in October 2012. Entergy responded by threatening a countersuit, Sheehan said.

Those behind the push for Entergy to renew its Clean Water Act permit or stop operations say Cape Cod Bay is a natural resource that belongs to the public and must be properly protected. All 15 Cape Cod towns have called for Pilgrim’s closure.

Cape Cod Bay contributes a minimum of $1.5 billion a year to the region’s economy, according to a 2012 study. The tourism and fishing industries supported by the bay — designated as a state ocean sanctuary in 1970 — are dependent on good water quality and the protection of coastal and marine habitats, according to the coalition. The report cited by the coalition claims industrial stormwater runoff into the bay from the power plant’s storm drains is improperly managed and not in compliance with current laws.

The EPA’s nearly two-decade delay in renewing Entergy’s water pollution permit means there is no realistic expectation that Pilgrim’s pollution and destruction of marine life will stop, Sheehan said. Terminating Entergy’s permit, she said, would likely result in a more innovative approach to power production at Pilgrim.

Sheehan said another lawsuit, based on violations of the public trust, is a possibility.

“Government agencies are ignoring their responsibility to protect the public trust. The EPA and DEP have failed to execute their duties,” she said. “Natural resources belong to everyone and don’t exist for Entergy to destroy. But corporations have the power and leverage to put pressure on the EPA and challenge regulations. This is just one example of how the system is broken.”

Questions and answers
ecoRI News was asked by Entergy spokeswoman Lauren Burm to email her questions. Here are the unedited questions and answers:

ecoRI News: What kind of impact is Pilgrim, most notably the 5-decade-old cooling system, having on Cape Cod Bay?

Entergy: Pilgrim’s operations are not adversely impacting Cape Cod Bay. Pilgrim operates in accordance with a valid National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In compliance with this permit, Entergy conducts an extensive biological monitoring program, which establishes that Pilgrim’s operations are in full compliance with all requirements. In light of the presence of Northern right whales Entergy developed a supplemental monitoring program for Pilgrim that was submitted to the NRC at the end of 2013 and implemented during the spring of 2014.

ecoRI News: Does Entergy consider Pilgrim’s technology outdated?

Entergy: Pilgrim’s technology meets all requirements for safe operations.

ecoRI News: How much would it cost to upgrade the plant to a closed-loop cooling system? Would it be similar to the one built at Brayton Point?

Entergy: We cannot speak to the system used by Brayton Point and therefore cannot make any comparisons.

ecoRI News: Why is Pilgrim operating on an expired Clean Water Act permit that is nearly 20 years old?

Entergy: Pilgrim operates in accordance with a valid National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP).  Entergy has been working with the agencies.

ecoRI News: How much of the energy produced by the plant is converted into electricity?

Entergy: During 2014 Pilgrim operated at 97 percent capacity. No other generating source came close. Moreover of the generation that is carbon-free in the southeastern MA load zone, which includes the Cape and Islands, Pilgrim provides nearly 100% of that carbon-free power (solar/wind ≈.03 of 1%).

ecoRI News: How much seawater is dumped back into Cape Cod Bay daily after it is used to cool the plant?

Entergy: Pilgrim takes in about 460 million gallons of water a day from the bay and runs it through our system for cooling purposes and sends it back into the bay in compliance with all clean water standards and permits.

ecoRI News: How much hotter is the water pumped back into the bay after cooling and what kinds of chemicals/materials does it contain?

Entergy: The bay water Pilgrim takes in and runs through our system for cooling purposes never comes in contact with any radioactive material and meets all clean water standards. The NPDES Permit specifies that the plant is not allowed to withdraw or heat up water from the bay in excess of the limits established by EPA. On average, the returning water temperature is warmed by 28 degrees Fahrenheit, about 4 degrees below the maximum limit.

ecoRI News: In 2013, the NRC downgraded Pilgrim because of operating failures and ranked it among one of the 22 worst performing reactors in the country. In 2014 and 2015, the NRC further downgraded Pilgrim to one of the 10 worst performing reactors. What is Entergy doing to address these issues?

Entergy: Pilgrim successfully completed the inspection related to the 2013 downgrade as was published in a report by the NRC on June 18, 2015. Pilgrim remains under additional NRC oversight until the final resolution of the Special Inspection that resulted from the shutdown during storm Juno in January 2015. All of the issues raised in the Special Inspection report have been addressed. A Regulatory Conference with the NRC was held on July 8 and the NRC is currently evaluating the new facts on the Special Inspection that the Pilgrim team presented. We expect to hear a final conclusion from the NRC in early August, 2015. Entergy has invested over $500 million in safety-related upgrades and new equipment in Pilgrim since 2000. Most recently, during May 2015, $70 million was invested during our biennial refueling outage. The entire Pilgrim team is committed to safety and works hard every day to operate the plant at the highest levels of safety and performance.


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Recent Comments

  1. Bravo to FRANK CARINI of the ecoRI News staff for the comprehensive coverage of the 41 page report, two years in the making, which exposes the fact that the EPA Clean Water Act permit of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station expired in 1996. Entergy is allowed to take and use up to 510 million gallons of water daily and sent back to Cape Cod Bay killing millions of fish (herring are protected and fines levied if citizens catch more than I as food for their own table), larval forms of life and raising the temperatures of the bay by several degrees. The coalition of 24 public health and environmental groups throughout the state issued this report because it “exposes the failure of the EPA and MA DEP to properly regulate the PNPS under federal and state environmental law”.
    Governor Baker should call for the closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station NOW.

  2. Terrific coverage — ecoRI News should be applauded. Why the Boston Globe hasn’t yet published a similar piece is beyond so many of us, particularly given that Boston Metro proper could be evacuated and contaminated should there be a problem at Pilgrim (which, by the way, is currently listed as the 5th worst operating reactor in the country, according to the NRC). It’s time for Pilgrim to be retired. At the very least, its permits should be updated.

  3. 2015 is the year of eyes wide open, and the world sees that billions spent on short-term storage of radioactive waste within the nuclear power plants is not a solution. We also know that radioactive waste is not being treated for safe and permanent disposal anywhere.

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