Posted Sep. 20, 2015
Entergy Corp. will announce some time this winter whether it will move forward with costly repairs and upgrades to the beleaguered Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station or simply decide the 43-year-old plant is no longer a moneymaker and close it down.
PLYMOUTH — Entergy Corp. will announce some time this winter whether it will move forward with costly repairs and upgrades to the beleaguered Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station or simply decide the 43-year-old plant is no longer a moneymaker and close it down.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission downgraded Pilgrim to the bottom of the performance list for the nation’s 99 operating reactors two weeks ago, based on the frequency of forced shutdowns and equipment failures there since 2013.
The so-called Column 4 category is just one step above mandatory shutdown by federal regulators. Only two other reactors in the country are in that performance category, both at Arkansas Nuclear I and both owned by Entergy.
Spokeswoman Lauren Burm said Entergy is now faced with a big decision. “If the corporation finds the cost of making improvements exceeds the value of the plant, it may consider shutting Pilgrim down,” Burm said.
Burm also noted the challenges of the current energy market. “The wholesale market has dropped and natural gas is hard to compete with,” she said.
Entergy must produce a performance improvement plan for federal regulators within six months, but a decision on Entergy’s future should be made long before then.
David Noyes, Pilgrim’s director of regulatory and performance improvement, said the scope of required work — along with cost figures he anticipates will be in the millions — is nearly ready for review by Entergy’s corporate leaders.
“They will work out the business models in terms of profitability,” Noyes said. Whether the plant continues to be financially viable will then be determined.
Costs will include necessary equipment, experts to monitor and analyze plant data, and workers to make required changes and upgrades, since the 600 current employees of the plant are needed for day-to-day operation.
Entergy just recently spent $70 million on Pilgrim, on equipment and additional staff, during its April refueling, yet the plant has been forced to power down twice since then.
Entergy must also pay the NRC for inspections, which have been frequent due to the plant’s performance.
Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, said last year’s inspections cost the company $1.8 million. Inspectors spent 6,500 hours at the plant, at a rate of $279 per hour.
The frequency of inspections will increase, Sheehan said, now that Pilgrim has been downgraded.
Meanwhile state Sen. Daniel Wolf, a Democrat from Harwich and longtime Pilgrim critic, has filed two bills that would add about $58 million to Entergy’s yearly expenses. The bills are expected to be considered this fall, Wolf said.
The first would impose a $10,000 annual charge for each spent fuel bundle that remains in pools at nuclear plants. Pilgrim has more than 3,000 bundles in its pool, making the charge $33 million. Wolf’s second bill would institute a requirement that $25 million be paid annually by nuclear plants into a decommissioning fund, so enough money would be available to cover closure.
“If those bills were to pass, that would be part of our evaluation of future viability,” Noyes said.
Wolf said he would like to see Pilgrim shut down. “This is a nuclear plant that federal officials have designated as a Category 4, a low to moderate safety risk; that’s just not acceptable,” Wolf said.
“My hope is whatever it takes, the plant should close,” Wolf said. “If economics don’t work, then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and Department of Environmental Protection should do their jobs and close it.”
Diane Turco, founder [sic] of the watchdog group Cape Downwinders, said she welcomed news that Entergy is looking at Pilgrim’s viability. “It’s very exciting that shutdown is on the table,” Turco said.
Turco added it should be shut down immediately. “Public safety should have no price tag,” she said.
Entergy closed Vermont Yankee, a boiling-water reactor similar to Pilgrim, in 2014, saying it was no longer economically viable. The corporation has secured federal approval to keep the Vermont plant in SafStor, which means fuel is removed from the reactor and stored in the spent fuel pools, but the reactor itself and all its components can remain onsite for 60 years.
Earlier this month, Entergy informed its investors that it will decide before the end of this calendar year whether to close the New York-based FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant, also similar to Pilgrim in size and type. “The decision will be based on the market,” Burm said.
Mary Lampert, a Duxbury resident and president of Pilgrim Watch, called the three 40-year-old plants and others like them “antiques.”
“Gangrene has set in,” Lampert said. “It’s time to sever the rotten areas, which are the old plants like Pilgrim, and then let the body, meaning Entergy, mend.”
Meanwhile, Noyes said the 600 workers at Pilgrim want to keep the plant operating. “They are committed to doing what we need to do to operate through 2032,” he said.
By 2032, when Pilgrim’s license is set to expire, it would be 60 years old. It went online in 1972.
Plymouth, the host community for Pilgrim, is paid about $9 million annually by Entergy. Several of the plant’s employees also live in that town.
Town Manager Melissa Arrighi did not return a call for comment in time for this story.
— Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @chrislegereCCT.