Activist Turco Renews Warning: Pilgrim Still Poses Radiation Risk

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health , Public Utilities

Diane Turco of Harwich, pictured in 2014 after she and other activists went on trial for trespassing following a protest at Pilgrim. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH — Diane Turco, an activist who’s been raising alarms about the Pilgrim Nuclear Power plant since the 1980s, never shrinks from a fight. So on Monday, when a judge threw out a trespassing charge against her stemming from a 2018 visit to the power plant with news reporters, she was disappointed.

“We wanted to go to court to highlight the fact of the insignificant security around a nuclear plant,” the Harwich resident said. When the witnesses for the prosecution didn’t show up in Plymouth District Court, the judge summarily dismissed the case. Why didn’t they appear? “Because they didn’t have a case,” Turco said.

The director of the citizens’ group Cape Downwinders, Turco has spent decades making the case that a release of radiation from the Plymouth plant would potentially contaminate much of the Cape and Islands, which is often downwind of the site. The group advocated for better emergency preparedness when the plant was open, and said the risk has not subsided now that the plant is being decommissioned.

Turco was a young parent and a teacher at Chatham Elementary School when she heard a speech by Dr. Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist. Caldicott argued that people are most susceptible to injury from radiation when they are babies or young children, and that message resonated with Turco, who started raising questions about Pilgrim.

“It’s all about the kids,” she said.

In November 2018, Turco invited two National Public Radio reporters to the plant and led them to a portion of the property “where you could eyeball the dry casks that are full of high-level radioactive waste, and the spent fuel pool,” she said. In doing so, Turco said she proved that security at the facility was lacking. She went to the gate used by plant employees to meet security, “and nobody was there, either,” she said. An employee finally came out and asked the three to leave. Two hours later when she was home, a Harwich police officer went to her home to ask if she had been at the power plant.

“That’s their security. There is none,” Turco said. “And that’s why they weren’t going to take us to court.”

Since that time, Pilgrim has been sold to Holtec International, which is in the process of decommissioning the plant. But Turco and other activists argue that the risk of a radioactive release remains as long as the spent fuel remains on site. She said a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that a fire at the spent fuel pool had the potential to cause a massive zone of contamination.

“The plume would’ve spread from Manhattan to Nova Scotia, and from Boston to Providence would’ve been a no-go zone, a dead zone, for a very long time,” she said. Holtec told the community that it planned to have the nuclear waste removed from the site by 2024.

“I think that made the community think, we really don’t have to worry about it,” Turco said. “But that was such a big fat lie.”

One potential strategy the decommissioning firm could use to dispose of radioactive water would be to dilute it and discharge it to Cape Cod Bay, a plan that raised widespread alarm among Cape towns. At a public hearing in Plymouth last week, the company’s CEO pledged not to release radioactive water into the bay without prior approval by the U.S. EPA, state officials and U.S. Senator Ed Markey.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a victory,” Turco said. Holtec has proven itself untrustworthy, and the language used by its CEO still leaves the door open to the potential discharge, Turco said. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has set standards for an acceptable amount of radiation that can be released, “it doesn’t mean it’s safe,” she said.

Turco said her group is asking the NRC to exercise its authority to impose additional restrictions that would effectively prohibit a discharge into the bay. But historically, she said, the commission has been reluctant to take actions that overly burden the nuclear industry.

“The NRC is totally co-opted by the industry,” she said. “We’re calling for the NRC to be abolished” and replaced with an independent regulator that has membership from state and local stakeholders, Turco added.

After decades of anti-nuclear activism, Turco said she has no plans to change her focus, “although I’d love to have some young folks start connecting with this.” A release of radiation, accidental or by a terrorist act, would change the region forever, she said.

“This is an existential threat to our communities.”