Pilgrim protesters hope trial will put focus on safety
Eleven anti-nuclear protesters will defend themselves against charges of trespassing at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in a trial next month expected to feature a roster of nuclear experts and political thinkers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Christopher Hedges and renowned physician and scholar Dr. Helen Caldicott.
Judge Kathryn Hand set a trial date of March 18 in Plymouth District Court at last Wednesday’s pretrial hearing at which the defense strategy was disclosed.
The defendants are among 14 protesters arrested at a demonstration at the Plymouth plant last May. According to the defendants, they were with a group of 60 protesters picketing at Pilgrim to show their opposition to the renewal of the plant’s license in view of its age and similarities to the nuclear reactors that failed in Japan.
Pilgrim’s operating license was renewed by federal regulators last year for 20 years.
When the 14 protesters left an area where picketing was permitted to attempt to deliver a letter to Pilgrim officials, they were warned they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. The protesters did not leave the restricted area and were charged with criminal trespass, a charge that carries a potential penalty of a $100 fine and 30 days’ imprisonment.
According to defendant Diane Turco of Cape Downwinders, the letter to Entergy raised “the clear and present dangers at its 40-year-old Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. The Pilgrim reactor is the same make and model as those which failed at Fukushima.”
In addition to the Cape Downwinders, the demonstration was sponsored by the South Shore-based Pilgrim Coalition, Duxbury-based Pilgrim Watch, and Cape Cod Bay Watch.
Three of the original defendants, including Duxbury resident Pat Garrity, have since pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and were fined $50.
Entergy officials declined to comment Wednesday on the trespass case.
“Our policy is we do not comment on matters that are pending before the court,” spokeswoman Carol Wightman said, adding, “Pilgrim station takes its security responsibility very seriously.”
Both Entergy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff have pointed to the high marks given to Pilgrim on annual safety inspections. In response to the Fukushima comparison, Entergy officials said Pilgrim has backup on-site generators and batteries in the event of the extended power loss that doomed Japan’s reactors.
Aside from setting a trial date, Wednesday’s pretrial hearing included a preliminary discussion of defense assertions and possible witnesses.
Turco said the protesters are seeking to offer a “necessity defense” to the charge against them, arguing that the seriousness of the danger the plant presents to public safety compelled them to take the actions they did. In support of this assertion, the defense intends to call such figures as Hedges, Caldicott, and nuclear expert Gordon Thompson.
A journalist whose coverage of global terrorism for The New York Times received a Pulitzer, Hedges will defend the need for “citizen activism for the greater good,” the defendants said in a statement. His book, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle nonfiction award.
Caldicott became prominent after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania when she left her medical career to call attention to the dangers of nuclear arms and nuclear power. She will testify to “the health dangers of [the Pilgrim] nuclear facility,” the defendants said.
Thompson, a longtime critic of the danger storing spent nuclear fuel within a plant presents as a target for terrorism and an accident risk, helped Attorney General Martha Coakley prepare the state’s argument in a lawsuit against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to renew Pilgrim’s license.
Filed last April, the state’s suit argued that the NRC should have completed a study of “the lessons learned” from the accident at the Fukushima plants and their relevance for the Pilgrim plant before relicensing.
In response, the NRC said it “has already considered and rejected the notion that our Fukushima lessons-learned review needs to be completed prior to a decision on any pending license renewal application.”
Nuclear safety advocate Lee Roscoe, a member of Cape Downwinders, said the trial of the nuclear protesters will accelerate growing public concern over reactor safety. She said a new resolution calling for Pilgrim’s closure won backing from Brewster officials after a similar resolution ran into opposition and “squeaked through” Town Meeting last year.
The resolution “calls for the town to ask the government to shut it down because we can’t be assured of our safety in event of an emergency,” Roscoe said. Similar resolutions were passed by town meetings in Marshfield and other communities south of Boston last spring.
The defendants said the prosecution disputed their right to call on the necessity defense at the pretrial hearing. The judge then required both the prosecution and the defense to submit written arguments and supporting papers to her by Feb. 25. If the judge decides that another pretrial hearing will be needed before she rules on the necessity defense, it would take place on March 13.
Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com.