I have covered the demise of cod in the waters off New England, the accelerating melt of the Arctic Ocean and its impact on the northernmost city in North America, the health risks of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere, the trials of curbing lead poisoning while the federal government cuts funding, among many other stories.
A long, lonely fight against nuclear plant
A year after Japan’s crisis, Duxbury resident remains committed to closing Plymouth nuclear plant
DUXBURY - The big, boxy building looms ominously over the bay from her roomy Colonial, like a scar on an otherwise pristine horizon for Mary Lampert, who considers it a potential source of “mass, random, premeditated murder.’’
Over the past 25 years, the slight, meticulously coifed grandmother with a penchant for salty language has relentlessly needled, picketed, and sued the owners of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, repeating her slogan to anyone willing to listen: “Better active today than radioactive tomorrow!’’
Her lonely fight to shut the Plymouth plant gained new urgency exactly a year ago, when a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters at a similarly designed nuclear plant in Japan. But even Lampert admits that her chances of blocking renewal of Pilgrim’s operating license, which expires in June, are remote.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspected all 68 plants nationwide, recommending improvements based on what happened in Japan, but concluded that US reactors are safe.
Still, working solo at her house, she continues to spend nearly all her waking hours writing letters and press releases, filing petitions and legal motions, organizing rallies, and hectoring local, state, and federal officials.
“People have to get their heads out of the sand; what happened in Japan could happen here, and we shouldn’t have to take that risk,’’ said Lampert, 69, showing off her stash of potassium iodide pills, which can reduce the effects of radiation exposure. “People say it seems like such a hopeless cause. But if the public doesn’t speak up for themselves, noth ing is going to happen.’’
Lampert and other critics of nuclear power assert that the United States has failed to take sufficient action to avoid similar failures here and that it’s only a matter of time before a natural disaster, mechanical failure, or act of terrorism results in the release of lethal doses of radiation. “These plants are made and operated by human beings,’’ she said.
Unlike Germany, which declared last year that it would abandon nuclear power by 2022, the United States has no plans to close its nuclear plants, which generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
In response to the failings at the Fukushima plant in Japan, the NRC formed a task force that issued a report last July calling for evaluations of seismic and flood hazards; reviews of procedures in the event a station loses power and backup power; new instrumentation for pools where spent fuel is stored and hardened containment vents; and revised emergency plans. Officials said many of those actions will take effect in the coming months.
“Our decisions are predicated on the safety of US nuclear power plants, rather than the courses of action being taken by other countries,’’ said Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman. “We performed evaluations after Fukushima and determined that the US reactors could continue to operate safely. At the same time, we are pursuing multiple changes that could make plants safer, based on what happened in Japan.’’
Officials at Entergy Corp., the Louisiana company that has run the 40-year-old Plymouth plant since 1999, said they have conducted a raft of their own inspections, retested all equipment, and updated training - including for worst-case scenarios - since the disaster in Fukushima.
The NRC last year also ordered Pilgrim to undergo a yearlong review of its safety procedures after failures of the control room staff last spring sparked the plant’s first emergency shutdown in years.
But Entergy officials say the state’s sole nuclear plant is safe and operating as designed, providing electricity to about 680,000 homes. They say it’s unlikely to experience failures similar to what occurred in Japan, noting the slim chances of a tsunami in the shallow waters of Cape Cod Bay, how their fuel is sealed in concrete vaults designed to withstand earthquakes, and the availability of three diesel generators that can supply power for up to two weeks.
“We take the accident at Fukushima very seriously,’’ said Carol Wightman, a spokeswoman for Pilgrim. “We believe we have sufficient equipment onsite to deal with any severe accident.’’
For Lampert, Pilgrim can’t do enough to ensure safety, given what she views as the intrinsic danger of nuclear plants, especially one 35 miles from Boston and with nearly 5 million people within a 50-mile radius.
Her family moved to their home in Duxbury in the 1980s, around the time when the plant had closed for several years because of major equipment problems. Lampert became depressed when she realized they were just 6 miles from the plant, fretted about her three children, and got involved in one of the many groups that sought to keep the plant closed.
She also tried to sell her house, but the market for expensive homes had tanked, and it never sold, she said.
Since then, as many of the other groups disappeared, she dug in for a long fight.
As the director of Pilgrim Watch, which she runs from a small office in her home filled with antinuclear posters and legal binders, she has spent tens of thousands of dollars of her family’s money.
She fought deregulation of the plant when it was run by Boston Edison. She helped persuade the state to make potassium iodide pills available to Duxbury and other communities near the plant. She helped block a radioactive waste dump from being built in Massachusetts. And she has dogged state officials to monitor air emissions and conduct cancer studies, much of which they eventually agreed to do.
Lampert - who despite no legal training has filed hundreds of legal appeals over the years - has won a grudging respect from bureaucrats, elected officials, and opponents. Sheehan called her a “dedicated and knowledgeable advocate’’ who is not satisfied until she gets answers.
Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the state Department of Public Health, said Lampert’s zealous advocacy has prodded government and industry to do things like install sensors that monitor the air and relay their findings immediately.
“I would describe her as an aggressive activist who has raised important issues,’’ Condon said. “I look at that kind of activism as an important complement to the work that government does.’’
In Duxbury, she is considered a rare phenomenon: a respected lightning rod. “I don’t think she goes overboard,’’ said Becky Chin, who cochairs the town’s nuclear advisory committee with Lampert. “We appreciate that she speaks her mind.’’
Over the past six years she has fought Pilgrim’s license renewal, filing more than 200 petitions and other documents with the NRC, helping to drag out the renewal process longer than for any other nuclear plant in US history. She has contended that Pilgrim’s license should not be renewed for 20 years because of aging pipes beneath the plant that may leak radioactive liquids, problems with electrical cables that transmit power to and from the plant, and the lack of a sufficient cleanup plan in the event of a radiation leak.
Her latest argument has been that Pilgrim has failed to do a sufficient analysis of the impact on endangered species in the area.
Entergy has rejected all of those arguments, and the NRC has dismissed most of them.
Lampert, who was once jailed for her convictions after an act of civil disobedience, accepts that her efforts are unlikely to close Pilgrim. “Is it time-consuming and frustrating? Am I banging my head against a wall every day? Yes,’’ she said. “But it’s worth it. . . . This is why I wake up in the morning.’’
As she ages, she has begun grooming others to take over the fight.
“This can’t be about just one person,’’ she said. “When I die, I hope they’ll throw my ashes over a boat, so that it washes up on the shore of the plant. So they’ll know I’ll always be there.’’