Watchdog groups question latest Pilgrim inspection

Immediate shutdown only solution to safety shortcomings, activists say.

By Christine Legere 


Posted Jan. 12, 2016 at 2:00 AM
Updated Jan 12, 2016 at 8:13 AM 

PLYMOUTH — As a federal team begins the first round of special inspections at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station this week to see whether a long list of shortcomings is being addressed by operators, area watchdogs expressed little faith in the process, saying the only solution to the aging plant's woes is to immediately and permanently shut it down.

The weeklong inspection, begun Monday, is the first of three Pilgrim must undergo this year, a result of its downgrade last fall to one of the three worst-performing reactors in the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the performance drop was the result of the company’s failure to adequately address problems that have caused several reactor shutdowns.

The aim of this initial inspection round is "to determine if continued operation is acceptable and whether additional regulatory actions are required to arrest declining performance,” according to a commission blog posted Monday.

Patrick O'Brien, a spokesman for Entergy Corp., the plant's owner-operator, said in an email the company has been working methodically to address identified shortcomings.

"Pilgrim and its 600-plus employees continue to work to make sure we are meeting all safety requirements and performing only at the highest operational standards while the NRC independently monitors our performance to ensure all regulations are met,” O'Brien wrote.

Entergy announced in October, a month after the performance downgrade, its plan to shutter Pilgrim sometime before mid-2019. It may shut down the reactor sooner to avoid an expensive refueling process required next spring.

Mary Lampert, president of the citizens group Pilgrim Watch, said those future dates aren’t soon enough. Entergy already has said the Plymouth plant is a financial loser, running about $40 million in the red annually.

If common sense were in charge, the NRC would be in there with a microscope, and they would also be looking at the company’s finances to assure they have the money and are demonstrating a willingness to spend the money on the plant,” Lampert said.

In a letter to federal inspectors, Lampert wrote that the community has little faith in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which, she said, doesn’t require any improvements that cost the industry significant money.

The public is left with “an ineffective regulator and a negligent operator running an antique reactor on the cheap,” Lampert wrote. ”We ask that, during this and subsequent inspections, you prove us all wrong.”

David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he did not see the point of the federal inspections since they never identify the plant’s shortcomings. The agency needs to change its inspection procedures, he said.

“It takes a storm like the one last January to reveal problems that have existed there for a while,” Lochbaum said. “Absent correcting their procedures, these federal inspections will essentially be an exercise.”

The Cape Downwinders, joined by citizens groups across the state, sent a letter to federal inspectors with copies to the region's legislative delegation, noting shortcomings ranging from faulty safety relief valves and the lack of a required meteorological backup tower to the chronic electrical problems in the plant's switchyard during extreme weather. The letter writers asked whether all those shortcomings had been addressed.

In his email, O'Brien said one of the two required meteorological towers was still out of service. Problems in the switchyard were being addressed by installing heaters to melt the ice, he said.

The citizens groups, however, said they had no confidence in Entergy or the NRC.

"There is no safe choice left," the groups wrote. "The public has no confidence in Entergy or the NRC as long as you allow Pilgrim to operate. Shut it down before it's too late."

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the results of this week's inspection would be made available to the public no more than 45 days after the conclusion of the inspection review.

 

The three-member inspection team will hold its exit meeting with Pilgrim managers Friday, unless inspectors don't yet have all the information they need, Sheehan said.