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Over protests, NRC edges toward Pilgrim renewal

NRC staff is recommending the Pilgrim nuclear plant’s license be renewed for 20 years. NRC staff is recommending the Pilgrim nuclear plant’s license be renewed for 20 years. (David L Ryan/Globe staff/File 2006)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2012
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With time running out, local nuclear watchdogs and environmentalists are protesting a recommendation by federal regulators to renew the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station’s operating license for another 20 years.

The activists say the public review process intended to allay public concern over the safety of the aging Plymouth plant is not yet over, with several safety and environmental issues still unresolved.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff recently concluded that the plant is safe, and urged the five-member presidentially appointed commission that heads the agency to approve the license extension for Pilgrim at its next meeting on Tuesday.

Whether they act on Tuesday or not, the commissioners will have the final say on the 40-year-old plant’s future.

The commission staff’s recommendation comes after six years of technical review of the plant’s operations. Pilgrim’s Lousiana-based owner, Entergy Corp., has sought to prove to regulators that Pilgrim runs safely, replaces old parts with new ones, and has management plans in place to monitor all its parts and procedures. Officials there say the time has come after a record-long review to grant renewal of the license, which expires next month.

“We’re just waiting for the NRC’s decision,” spokeswoman Carol Wightman said Wednesday, citing Pilgrim’s “long, detailed NRC safety and technical review.”

Last week the NRC’s head of operations, R.W. Borchardt, agreed that the plant has been studied long enough, telling the commissioners they have reasonable assurance that the plant’s activities “will continue to be conducted safely.”

But two local groups, Duxbury-based Pilgrim Watch and Kingston-based Jones River Watershed Association, say the staff recommendation short-circuits the review process.

Pilgrim Watch has filed a series of written contentions backed by its own experts questioning aspects of the plant’s operations and aging management. It raised issues such as groundwater pollution from leaky pipes, the potential failure of old electric cables, inadequate measurement of wind currents carrying radiation, and the true impact of a serious nuclear accident such as a meltdown or a terrorist attack on the neighboring community.

“This is simply an outrage,” Mary Lampert, president of Pilgrim Watch, said last week. “The NRC is doing Entergy’s bidding and trying to trample our rights to have our concerns heard in a full and fair process.”

After last year’s nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, caused by a tsunami, Pilgrim Watch argued that Pilgrim must take that experience into account when evaluating the impact of a potential disaster in Plymouth. The NRC’s review of that contention has not yet come to a conclusion.

This year the Jones River group joined Pilgrim Watch in arguing that pollution from the plant, which cools its reactor with 500 million gallons of water a day from Cape Cod Bay, is harming fish populations, including those in Kingston’s Jones River. The groups say the Endangered Species Act requires Entergy to study the issue — a point the NRC has yet to decide on.

“The scale of destruction of Cape Cod Bay and its resources by Entergy’s operations over the past 40 years is incalculable,” said Pine duBois, the Jones River group’s director. “And we have a right to be fairly heard.”

In recommending Pilgrim’s renewal, however, the NRC staff argues that the commission is not required to wait until all license appeals are addressed before renewing a plant’s license. They say the important point is that “Entergy [has] or will take appropriate actions to manage the effects of aging” and has shown it conducts its activities in accord with its license.

In their response, the groups contend the commission does not have the right to renew a license with questions still on the table in “contested” cases.

Whether it chooses to act at Tuesday’s meeting or not, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said, “The commission will only proceed once it has had a chance to fully review all of the relevant information.”

Since the Fukushima disaster, new local groups have drawn attention to Pilgrim’s license renewal. An umbrella group called Pilgrim Coalition backed local resolutions to put a hold on Pilgrim’s license renewal until all the safety improvements from a “lessons learned” study of the Japanese disaster have been put in place. Spring Town Meetings in Marshfield, Scituate, Duxbury, and Kingston approved the resolutions, as did a number of Cape Cod towns.

A similar resolution is on the ballot at the Plymouth town election on Saturday.Pilgrim Coalition leader Anna Baker called Plymouth “a key vote” because a yes vote in Plymouth would encourage state officials to back their cause.

Last week a coalition of 14 groups, including Pilgrim Coalition, Freeze Pilgrim, and the Massachusetts Sierra Club, called on Governor Deval Patrick to weigh in and lobby the NRC against approval before the review process is complete. As of Wednesday, the groups had not received a response from the governor.

Entergy officials say Pilgrim has already assessed its safety procedures in the light of the Japanese disaster. Pointing out that the Fukushima plants failed because they did not have enough backup electrical supply to run safely after a tsunami knocked out their electrical systems, officials say Pilgrim has a much greater backup power capacity from oil and battery-powered generators.

Sheehan said he could not speculate on how the commission will deal with the staff recommendation for Pilgrim’s license renewal.

“The commission is not bound by a deadline for reaching that decision,” he said. “Options for the commission would include approving the recommendation, supporting it with modifications, or rejecting it.”

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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