Says Pilgrim should be exempt after 49 years of being governed by zoning

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station exists in Plymouth for one key reason: in 1967, the Plymouth Zoning Board gave Entergy’s predecessor, Boston Edison, a “special permit” in 1967 to build a nuclear power station. Without this special permission, Pilgrim would not exist today.

Ever since 1967, Pilgrim has been governed by Plymouth’s local zoning laws. The town has issued about 100 additional zoning permits for new uses and structures at Pilgrim. Town zoning laws exist to give the local community the power to regulate what types of activities are allowed in certain parts of town. For example, a factory cannot be located in a residential district next to people’s homes. The zoning laws are part of Massachusetts’ tradition of “home rule” that allows a local community to have a say over what happens in its town.

Now, 49 years after Plymouth gave special zoning approval to Boston Edison to build Pilgrim, Entergy wants future activities to be exempt from zoning. Entergy wants to strip the town of the ability to have a say over what happens at Pilgrim. This is happening a critical time: Entergy plans to close Pilgrim no later than June 2019, and must “decommission” the contaminated nuclear waste site. After closure, Pilgrim will also have to move its dangerous nuclear waste into the new “dry cask” storage facility. Full decommissioning, cleanup, and movement of nuclear waste into dry casks can take up to 60 years to complete. Entergy wants to be able decommission Pilgrim without the local oversight and the control the Town could exercise under its zoning laws. This is a slap in the face to the Town of Plymouth and the rights of local residents to have a say over what happens in their community.

Entergy’s effort to escape local zoning was announced in a Massachusetts Court on January 12, 2016 at a hearing in the citizen lawsuit against Entergy over violations of zoning for the new “dry cask” nuclear waste storage facility. In 2012, residents learned Entergy had started construction illegally on the massive nuclear waste facility, costing hundreds of millions of dollars without the proper zoning permit from the Town. They filed a lawsuit to require a special permit under zoning laws.

Entergy’s dry cask storage facility will store all of Pilgrim’s nuclear waste in Plymouth indefinitely. Pilgrim’s nuclear waste is so lethal that, upon removal from the reactor, each nuclear waste assembly emits radiation that can be fatal within minutes to someone in the immediate vicinity who is inadequately shielded [1]. The waste must remain stored away for hundreds of thousands of years according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) [2].

After substantial construction on the nuclear waste storage facility without zoning approval, Entergy asked the Plymouth building inspector for an “after the fact” permit that was readily granted in violation of the law. In August 2013, local residents filed a lawsuit against the Town and Entergy claiming that the Town should have required a special permit for the project, held a legally mandated public hearing, and given the public the opportunity to provide input about how the nuclear waste storage facility was sited, built, and monitored. This process is standard for any structure in Town that requires a special permit. Learn more about the lawsuit:

A citizen’s right to use local zoning and the special permit process is one of the most effective ways for residents to participate in ensuring that Pilgrim’s nuclear waste is properly stored and monitored for as long as it stays there – likely hundreds of years or longer.

Entergy has been fighting the local residents in court for more than two years. The lawsuit has been winding its way through the Land Court since August 2013. Entergy tried to get the case dismissed in August 2014, claiming none of the local residents had legal standing to bring the case. The Court disagreed. Entergy then tried to delay the case by asking the Judge to break the trial in two parts. The Court disagreed with that too.

On January 12, 2016, after more than two years of preparation, the Court said it was time to finalize plans for trial and held a hearing with the parties’ lawyers. In court, Entergy’s lawyer made a surprise announcement about wanting to escape local zoning: Entergy plans to ask the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) for an exemption under Mass. General Law, Chapter 40A, Section 3. This law says the DPU can exempt a “public service company” from local zoning where it is “reasonably necessary for the convenience or welfare of the public.” Entergy plans to ask the state Land Court judge to stop the citizens’ zoning lawsuit while it seeks the exemption from the DPU. It appears that Entergy is going to the DPU to try to escape zoning laws and so it does not have to face local residents in court.

Pilgrim is one of the worst run nuclear reactors in the U.S. Instead of fixing the problems, Entergy plans close Pilgrim no later than June 2019. Just this week, the NRC began its increased oversight process at Pilgrim due to the facility’s performance rating being downgraded to Category IV last year. At this crucial time, when decisions are being made about decommissioning plans and how nuclear waste will be stored at Pilgrim for hundreds of years or longer, local input is crucial. Entergy should not be able to escape local zoning laws. Instead, it should be a good neighbor and welcome input from the public about how to best close and decommission Pilgrim. That should include complying with local zoning laws.

Here are some past blogs about this issue:

[1] Blue Ribbon Commission. Jan. 2012. Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Report to the Secretary of Energy. 180 pp.

[2] U.S. NRC. 2012. High-level waste.