Staff ‘Overwhelmed’ at Nuclear Plant, but U.S. Won’t Shut It
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
Diane Turco, the director of Cape Downwinders, which is opposed to the Pilgrim nuclear plant, speaking at a public hearing on Tuesday.
Credit M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times
FEB. 1, 2017
PLYMOUTH, Mass. — One by one, ordinary residents confronted the federal regulators, telling them during a three-hour meeting Tuesday night that the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station here was not safe and should be shut down.
Their chief piece of evidence? An internal email written Dec. 6 by the leader of a federal inspection team and sent accidentally — thanks to autofill in the “to” line — to Diane Turco, a citizen activist opposed to the plant.
The email outlined a host of problems at the aging plant, 40 miles southeast of Boston, including that the plant managers seemed “overwhelmed just trying to run the station.”
Ms. Turco immediately forwarded the email to The Cape Cod Times, which ran an article that set off alarm bells across the state and reignited residents’ long-simmering worries about the plant, which has been classified by federal regulators as one of the three worst-performing of the nation’s 99 nuclear plants.
The email — and the debate that has followed — have forced a painful reckoning here in Plymouth, where many residents have been supportive of the plant, which has long provided this historic town with high-paying jobs, a boon to the tax base and contributions to charities.
Finally, after weeks of escalating concerns, officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to meet with the residents and several elected officials here on Tuesday night.
The meeting drew 300 people in a snowstorm to a nondescript hotel ballroom, where many were armed with neon green placards saying “Shut Pilgrim Now.” The residents said they viewed the damaging email as exactly the sort of evidence they needed to finally make a substantive argument against the station.
But to the surprise of some at the meeting, the regulators acknowledged the problems. Donald Jackson, the inspector who wrote the email, discussed its main points. And the regulators said the problems raised in the message were being addressed and, most important, were not serious enough to close the plant.
“I have to have a sound technical and legal basis to do that,” Dan Dorman, the regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview after the meeting.
“One of the purposes of this inspection was to dive deep into this station and see if that basis for closing was there,” he said. “And what I’m hearing right now from this team is they didn’t find it.”
In addition, he said, the commission would not intervene in the scheduled refueling of the plant, which is to take place this spring. The commission is to issue its final report in March or April and will return to Plymouth for a public meeting on March 21.
The conclusion angered and disappointed many of the plant’s opponents, but some said on Wednesday that the regulators’ conclusion did not leave them defeated.
“It is motivating us even more,” said Ms. Turco, the inadvertent recipient of the email, who is also the director of the Cape Downwinders, a group opposed to the plant.
“We don’t know exactly what our next step is,” she said, “but we certainly aren’t going away or taking this lying down.” She said the activists intended to pressure Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to revoke the plant’s operating license.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has classified Pilgrim, which went online in 1972, and two plants in Arkansas in a category called Column Four, one step away from being required to shut. All three are owned by Entergy Corporation, based in Louisiana.
After the meeting Tuesday night, Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for Entergy, said, “The key for us is that the N.R.C. said the plant is safe to operate.”
The company is shutting the plant anyway by May 31, 2019, for financial reasons, Mr. O’Brien said. “With low gas prices, it’s not favorable to run a nuclear generating station and make money,” he said. But if the plant were to shut down early, Entergy would be penalized for failing to keep its commitment to contribute to the region’s electrical grid.
Driving Ms. Turco and other critics is the fear of an accident that, according to a 2006 study done for the state attorney general, could have the potential to contaminate millions of residents from Boston to Providence, R.I., cause 24,000 latent cancers in the region and result in $488 billion in damages.
Mr. Jackson, the inspector who wrote the errant email, said it was “a snapshot in time,” taken during the first week of a three-week inspection. In explaining his comment about plant workers being “overwhelmed,” he said that his team had shown up with 20 inspectors instead of the usual three or four, and that they had made many demands on the plant workers.
“I didn’t mean to leave the impression that operators in the control room were overwhelmed,” he said. There was a lot of confusion in that first week, he said, but eventually things settled down.
While the inspection is continuing, he said he expected the final report to find between 10 and 15 violations. “It’s clear they are a Column Four performer,” he said, “but we did determine that the plant is operating safely now.”
Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has worked in the industry but is now advising the activists, said he thought the regulators’ conclusions were “reasonable,” but he faulted them for failing to fully explain their thinking.
“The N.R.C. didn’t do a good job of explaining why a troubled plant can still be operating safely,” he said.
Jess Bidgood contributed reporting from Boston.
The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts has been classified by federal regulators as one of the three worst-performing of the nation’s 99 nuclear plants. CreditDavid L. Ryan/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images