PLYMOUTH - Plymouth selectmen want to know how an in-house Nuclear Regulatory Commission email containing some alarming observations about operations at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station wound up in the hands of the public earlier this week.
Board members also want more details on the shortcomings listed in the email, saying the public needs assurance they are safe.
To that end, they're demanding a meeting with NRC officials as soon as possible.
"As a community, we've been extremely patient; we've listened to the NRC," said Selectmen Chairman Kenneth Tavares during a hastily arranged board meeting late Wednesday. Tavares called the description of plant failures in the email "powerful."
"We don't want to be alarmists, but we don't know exactly what's going on," Tavares said. "I think the NRC needs to give us some assurances."
A team of 20 federal inspectors from around the country has been scrutinizing systems and staff performance at Pilgrim, based on its classification as one of the worst performers in the U.S.
The first two weeks of the inspection winds up Friday, with a third and final week scheduled in mid-January. The NRC will issue a report of its findings 45 days after the inspection concludes.
In his emailed status report to the NRC's regional office in Pennsylvania earlier this week, inspection team leader Donald Jackson characterized Pilgrim's staff as "overwhelmed." His preliminary findings included failure by staff to follow established industry procedures, failure to properly fix broken equipment, lack of required expertise among plant specialists, failure of some staff to understand their roles and responsibilities, and a team of employees who appear to be struggling with keeping the plant running.
One of the regional office staff forwarded Jackson's email to a number of recipients, mistakenly including Diane Turco, president of the anti-Pilgrim group Cape Downwinders, who in turn provided it to The Times.
The Plymouth selectmen scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday, within hours of the Times publishing the email and an accompanying story.
"A memo like this can't be ignored," Tavares said during the meeting. "It doesn't come from someone on the outside. It comes from someone on the inside."
Jackson's observation that workers appeared overwhelmed by the task of simply running the plant concerned Selectman John Mahoney. "That shouldn't give anyone a level of confidence," Mahoney said. "Everything with respect to that plant should be about transparency, openness and objectivity. At this point in time, it's all about safety."
Pilgrim, which began operating in 1972, is scheduled to permanently shut down in June 2019.
Selectmen voted to send letters to Gov. Charlie Baker and the region's state and federal legislators asking that they push for the meeting with the NRC and Entergy, Pilgrim's owner-operator. They also asked that the legislators attend.
U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., both longtime critics of Pilgrim, have already expressed interest in holding some public discussion, along with Sen. Viriato deMacedo, R-Plymouth, and state Rep. Mathew Muratore, R-Plymouth.
Entergy spokesman Patrick O'Brien said company representatives regularly attend selectmen's meetings and would comply with the board's request.
Meanwhile, spokesman Neil Sheehan said the NRC likely won't be able to accommodate the town's request to have an NRC staff member at the next selectmen's meeting.
"Nevertheless, we are endeavoring to be responsive to town officials' informational needs to the greatest degree possible, while acknowledging the constraints presented by an ongoing inspection," Sheehan wrote in an email.
The letter had yet to arrive in the governor's office but spokesman Brendan Moss said the administration maintains "an open dialogue with municipal officials across the state."
In a previous statement to the media, the administration said it relied on the NRC to do its job and the governor looked forward to the final inspection report.
Plymouth Town Manager Melissa Arrighi appeared most angry about the email's release.
"It is beyond irresponsible for these preliminary findings or internal notes to be seen by the public without proper context and without the completion of a fair and objective process to the entity being reviewed," Arrighi wrote in an email to the Times. "In addition, having this type of raw data out in the public causes unnecessary alarm and concern by the very agency that is supposed to protect the public and ensure power plant facilities are safe."
Plymouth's role as host to an operating nuclear reactor is winding down, with closure less than three years away.
Until then, Plymouth will continue to receive annual amounts from Entergy as host community: $9.25 million in the current fiscal year, $9 million in fiscal 2018, and $8.5 million in fiscal 2019.
In the event the Pilgrim closes before the current June 2019 target date, Entergy can reopen negotiations regarding host payments.
- Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.