Pilgrim critics offer their take on the pending plant closure
To understand the decommissioning strategies that critics of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station favor you should probably begin with the question of trust.
By Frank Mand
Posted Mar. 25, 2016 at 9:06 AM
PLYMOUTH – To understand the decommissioning strategies that critics of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station favor you should probably begin with the question of trust. They still don’t trust plant owner Entergy to do the right thing.
In regards to Entergy’s eventual selection of one of three available decommissioning options (DECON, SAFSTOR or ENTOMB), and the use of hundreds of millions of dollars of decommissioning funds, the experts assembled by Pilgrim Coalition for this week’s “informational forum” suggested that Entergy had only one overriding concern: money.
When the plant finally closes (as early as 2017) Entergy would choose and the NRC would likely allow the company, critics say, to utilize what is called the SAFSTOR decommissioning option. That’s pronounced similarly to “safe store” but well-known nuclear power critic Arnie Gundersen, one of Wednesday’s forum speakers, said it should be pronounced “saf store, and rhymes with sap.”
Another of the forum’s speakers, Tim Judson, the executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said that while none of the decommissioning options under discussion could be considered a best practice, SAFSTOR was particularly problematic for host communities.
DECON generally meant rapid dismantlement of the facility, but that presented dangers to workers and the environment as that often led to contamination issues because the plant’s radiation did not have enough time to cool down.
ENTOMB is just what it sounds like, Judson explained, the entombment of the site under concrete. It’s an approach that had never been utilized in the United States.
But SAFSTOR allows the plant owner to essentially mothball the plant, Judson said, deferring actual decommissioning (disassembly of the plant and removal of radioactive materials) for up to 60 years.
“Entergy will say that SAFSTOR is a very good thing,” Judson said at the forum, noting that the plant owner can argue it minimizes concerns with workers being exposed to radiation.
But, Judson added, SAFSTOR has serious consequences for the town and plant workers.
“It allows the company to lay off the entire work force very quickly,” Judson explained. That saves Entergy money, but the town would immediately lose its economic contribution and the layoffs would eliminate the workers who have the most knowledge about the plant.
Using SAFSTOR might also mean that, in 60 years, the town had no one to negotiate with – or fund – the decommissioning process.
“Is Entergy going to exist in 50 years?” Judson asked. “And if not, who will pay for the decommissioning?”
Judson and Gundersen both emphasized that Pilgrim, as a Limited Liability Corporation is economically insulated from its parent company, so if it were to declare bankruptcy the cost of decommissioning would fall to the state or the federal government, or the town.
Gundersen suggested this was an outcome that would not worry Pilgrim’s parent company.
“They can go bankrupt and you can’t get back to the parent company,” Gundersen said. “It’s like cutting off the lizard’s tail. It just grows a new tail and the community can get stuck with a hell of a liability.”
None of this is supposed to be possible.
Decommissioning is supposed to be paid for by a special fund, set aside over the years a plant operates.
But Judson explained how, in his experience with different decommissioning projects, that fund is often insufficient for the actual costs.
Judson also pointed out that the decommissioning fund is only meant for the deconstruction of the plant and the removal of radioactive wastes, but there are other costs associated with decommissioning.
Nuclear power plants almost always have other kinds of contamination (PCBs, for example) on site that is not covered by the fund.
So even if there is enough money to pay for removing all the radioactive waste, decommissioning often drags on for many years afterwards to deal with other kinds of contamination. And if the process is not complete, the host community cannot move forward with any reuse plans.
The decommissioning process under SAFSTOR can also be delayed if the owner uses those funds for other purposes.
How is that possible?
Judson said that NRC regulations do not technically allow plant owners to use decommissioning funds for dry cask storage, but that federal regulators have been approving exemptions to its rules to allow just that.
And Judson added a final byzantine element. He said that in Pilgrim’s case, Entergy could actually make money on the decommissioning process.
First the company would agree to transfer all of its spent fuel located in the spent fuel pool in the reactor building to dry cask storage. Pilgrim critics believe that’s the safest option for spent fuel. But that could cost upwards of $200 million.
So the NRC grants them an exemption from its rules and they take the money for dry cask storage out of the decommissioning fund, not out of its own pockets, thereby delaying the start of decommissioning.
And then they sue the federal government.
When the federal government broke its promise to build a permanent national repository for spent fuel – at Yucca Mountain in Nevada – nuclear power plants began winning suits against the federal government for the cost of alternative solutions, like dry cask storage.
And in Pilgrim’s case, Judson said said, they have never put a dime of their own money into the decommissioning fund; that fund was part of the sales agreement when they purchased the plant from Boston Edison more than 20 years ago.
So they sue for the cost of the dry cask storage, the decommissioning is delayed, and when they win their suit they don’t return it to the decommissioning fund, thereby speeding up the process. Instead they pocket the money. They walk away with, what Judson estimated, would be a $240 million dollar bonus.
That is how the plant’s critics see the decommissioning process unfolding and the reason why Mary Lampert, who had opened the forum two and a half hours earlier, offered her closing remarks.
“To the best of my knowledge the town has no cards in their pocket, no leverage,” Pilgrim Watch founder Lampert said, “and neither does the commonwealth. But there is a bill in the state Senate right now which, if approved, would put $25 million per year into the decommissioning trust fund.”
If approved that bill would likely be challenged by Entergy in court, Lampert acknowledged.
Let the negotiations begin.