Federal regulators get an earful from the public over Pilgrim Station oversight

Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch offers her critique of the power plant.

Matthew Nadler

Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch offers her critique of the power plant.

Every spring, officials from Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station sit down and hear their annual performance review from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in front of a largely hostile crowd prepared to criticize every aspect of the plant’s operation.

This year was no different, with one exception. Much of the anger was aimed not at Pilgrim but at the NRC officials charged with overseeing the power plant.

When the public comment portion of the evening started, supporters and opponents of the power plant traded off comments, with those opposed laying out a litany of complaints, those in support were, mostly, plant employees or family members of plant employees.

But, as the evening progressed, a new target came into view, as several speakers took aim at the federal regulators. Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch said the NRC’s own inspection system is a problem. “You encourage bad behavior,” she said. “ I would love to believe things are going to get better, but it’s going to depend on you changing procedures.”

Pilgrim Coalition leader Anna Baker was more direct in her criticism, saying she has no faith in the NRC and stating there’s a revolving door between it and industry workers. Falmouth resident Lily Franton echoed what Baker said, “The NRC is not looking out for us, the NRC and corporations work hand in hand. “We have lost confidence in regulators.

Former Plymouth Nuclear Matters Committee Chairman Jeff Berger may have had the sharpest words for the NRC officials in the room.  Calling Pilgrim Station “a clear and present danger to the community,” he told the officials, “you are not the watchdogs we paid for. “ Pilgrim, he said, should never have been relicensed. And now, he argued,  there isn’t enough money in the plant’s decommissioning fund because of “NRC incompetence.”

That fund, paid into by ratepayers, was a topic of interest for some speakers. One, James Lampert of Duxbury, even had his own slideshow. According to Lampert, Entergy doesn’t have the money to decommission the plant as soon as it closes. Rather, he suspects, Pilgrim will be put in what is called Safestor, essentially mothballing the plant in the hope, he said, that either the money will grow or it will become someone else’s problem.  “The trouble is that even as fund grows so will cost,” he said, asserting that “we’re going to leave our children with a massive bill.”

The NRC’s acting Regional Director David Lew disputed Lampert’s figures, noting that the NRC assumes a growth rate of 2 percent for the decommissioning fund. The decay of radioactive material over time is also a factor in calculating the costs, he said. “When we look at fund, it’s higher than minimum requirements, which tells us it can cover decommissioning costs. We have had experience with this,” he said.

Other speakers questioned whether Entergy would be allowed to dip into the fund to cover costs that, according to them, are not related to decommissioning.

It wasn’t all criticism for the NRC or Pilgrim. Christina Renault, a Manomet resident and senior reactor operator, talked about wanting to develop her career there and “make Pilgrim her home. I have not one ounce of worry about what happens at Pilgrim Station.” “Critics dismiss the capability of staff at Pilgrim, I’m offended by it,” said her coworker, Sheila Reynolds.

Margaret Pasquale, a Sacred Heart High School English teacher and the spouse of a Pilgrim Station employee expressed confidence in the future of the plant. “I believe it will continue to operate safely. If we didn’t believe in its safety wouldn’t have moved so close.” She added that, according to her husband, plant upgrades are being made and employees are being added.

Before the public got its say, NRC officials had theirs, giving their review of Pilgrim Station’s performance over the past year.

Pilgrim has been in what the NRC calls the Repetitive Degraded Cornerstone Column, or Column 4, of the NRC’s Action Matrix.” In English, that means Pilgrim is now ranked at the bottom of the performance list among the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors. Since then, the plant has undergone additional inspections and a third resident inspector has been assigned to the plant, Arthur Burritt, the NRC Reactor Projects Chief for Pilgrim said. A report on the extra inspections will be released in May. “Successful completion of review will ensure Pilgrim understands its mistakes and what to do about it,” Burritt said.

Pilgrim Senior Operations Manager John Macdonald noted that Entergy, the plant’s owner, spent $60 million on plant improvements during its 2015 refueling.  Pilgrim Station Engineering Director said the company is focused on encouraging good employee behavior, though he noted it may be harder to retain staff as the plant nears its May 2019 shutdown day.  Even with that MacDonald said, the company is retaining its licensed operating staff and job candidates still want to work there.

Pilgrim Station Recovery Director Dave Noyes said oversight of the plant by Entergy officials has been “outstanding” with reviews that have been more demanding since the plant was downgraded by the NRC.

 

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