On a concrete pad about 25 feet above Plymouth Bay, eight massive steel-reinforced concrete cylinders hold the remains of the radioactive fuel that has kept the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station running since the 1970s.
When the plant begins decommissioning next year, Pilgrim officials expect to fill another 54 of the so-called dry casks, which are 18 feet tall, weigh 360,000 pounds, and emit small amounts of radiation. The concrete pad is a little more than 200 feet from the shoreline.
The problem is where to store the nuclear waste — especially since its current location won’t stay 25 feet above Plymouth Bay for long.
As sea levels rise at an accelerating rate, increasing the threat that an extreme storm surge could flood the coastal facility, Pilgrim officials are considering whether to move the spent fuel to higher ground.
“Not moving them would be irresponsible,” said Pine duBois, executive director of the Jones River Watershed Association in Kingston, which is about 8 miles from Pilgrim. “We don’t know if this highly dangerous material will be there for another 100 years or a thousand years. It has to be moved.”
Environmental advocates are calling on the state to require Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based conglomerate that owns Pilgrim, to move the casks to its helipad or parking lot, which are three times higher than the existing storage site and set further back from the water.
Despite the concerns, plant officials say the casks are secure.
Under recent worst-case projections, tides could rise as much as 10 feet by the end of the century and as much as 37 feet by 2200. That’s not accounting for storm surges, such as the 15-foot high tides that battered the Massachusetts coast during two nor’easters this winter, causing widespread flooding.
Moving the casks uphill would add to the expense, and plant officials have not ruled out building a new storage pad adjacent to the existing one, which is only about 100 feet from the reactor building.
Storing nuclear waste has long been a thorny political issue, one that has become increasingly urgent as more aging plants are shuttered.
Federal officials had long planned to store the waste in a multibillion-dollar repository bored deep into Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But state officials and residents there blocked the site from opening, saying it presents public safety and environmental risks.
Federal officials have been reviewing other options, including opening temporary facilities elsewhere in New Mexico or in Texas. But those options have similar problems: The government would have to overcome local concerns and potential challenges over transporting the fuel through a variety of jurisdictions.
Until then, the waste will remain scattered at plants such as Pilgrim, even well after they shut down.
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