The scram that breaks the camel’s back?

Published under Fair Use
By Frank Mand
September 8, 2015

Nine months after it happened, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finalized its post-scram inspection finding as “White,” suggesting plant operators should have been better prepared, the response was immediate and widespread.

PLYMOUTH – It was an old, cold scram, but the response is hot.

Even at the time the scram happened, when the automatic shutdown of the Pilgrim Nuclear reactor itself took place last January in the midst of Winter Storm Juno, it did not get this big of a response.

But nine months later when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finalized its post-scram inspection finding as “White” (low to moderate safety significance), suggesting plant operators should have been better prepared, the response was immediate and widespread.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., issued a release chiding Pilgrim for “long-standing and repetitive safety problems and unplanned shutdowns.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joined Markey, calling the NRC’s decision “a disturbing development” and urged parent company Entergy to “act swiftly and decisively to correct these issues and restore the public’s trust in its ability to safely operate this plant.”

Even Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, after first issuing a lukewarm vote of support, reversed course the next day and issued his own letter saying he was troubled by the NRC’s determination that plant-owner Entergy “has failed to take appropriate corrective actions to address the causes of several unplanned shutdowns dating back to 2013.”

Will the plant now have to spend several hundred million dollars to meet the NRC’s requirements, as suggested earlier this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ David Lochbaum? And will that expense, regardless of the plant’s performance, be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Many of the plant’s toughest critics were present at the annual “No Escape from the Cape” rally on the Sagamore Bridge on Labor Day.

Cape Downwinders’ President Diane Turco spoke while holding a banner that flapped in the breeze as thousands of cars crept over the bridge. Turco had no doubt: It was about time for the NRC to uphold its mandate, and urged the regulators to revoke Pilgrim’s license now.

“Given this assessment, the next step in the NRC rulebook is shutdown,” Turco said. “Pilgrim is a threat to us all, and the NRC finally agrees.

“And about the financial situation, as you know, Entergy just spent $70 million and is still not able to pass inspection. I spent $1,200 on my car and it still didn’t pass inspection, so I had to dump it.”

Heather Lightner, a member of Plymouth’s Nuclear Matters Committee, agreed.

“The problems that occurred during winter storm Juno are most definitely a critical event,” Lightner said. “State and federal elected officials have been looking to the NRC for reassurance that Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is safe to continue operating until the end of its license. With the NRC’s latest degraded safety rating, I’m not sure they can tell the residents of this state – in good conscience – that Pilgrim is not a threat to the commonwealth.”

EcoLaw founder and Pilgrim Coalition member Meg Sheehan doesn’t fault Baker for his quick turnaround.

“I think the governor took a closer look at the facts that citizen activists have been presenting to his office,” Sheehan said, “including the detailed history of scrams and equipment failures at Pilgrim. I think he also came to realize the toll Pilgrim’s pollution is taking on Cape Cod Bay and our groundwater and causing increased cancer rates in the area.

“Given the governor’s reputation as a tough-minded business manager, I think he knows mismanagement when he sees it. In the 15 years Entergy has been running it, Pilgrim’s safety record has gone from bad to worse. Entergy, a Louisiana-based corporation, is destroying our natural resources, polluting the bay and threatening our economy.”

“Entergy ignores NRC directives and shows disdain for community concerns about nuclear safety and pollution,” Sheehan said. “I don’t think this is the kind of corporation even a pro-business governor wants to support.”

Pilgrim Watch founder Mary Lampert has been watching Pilgrim, and the NRC, for decades, and says she sees the handwriting on the wall.

“Pilgrim is now one step away from a forced shutdown,” Lampert said, and refered to a specific regulation, Chapter 0350.

“Soon the NRC will begin an on-going supplemental inspection, and we will learn what they find. Once inspectors start looking around, they usually find more things that are wrong and must be fixed. But one more miscue and the NRC is likely to order that shutdown and not restart until a long list of fixes are completed; fixes that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Davis-Besse and Fort Calhoun (nuclear plants) entered and exited 0350 space in about two years each, at a cost of several hundred million each,” Lampert said. “Wall Street is watching and tends not to advise investors to (invest in) underperforming nuclear reactors.”

In the language accompanying its announcements of the confirmed “white” finding, and the plant’s lowered performance rating the NRC seemed to express a level of frustration with Pilgrim’s operation not seen, at least publicly, in similar circumstances.

“The most recent ‘white’ finding highlights the continuing weaknesses in the implementation of Entergy’s program for identifying, evaluating and resolving problems at Pilgrim,” NRC Region I Administrator Dan Dorman wrote. “Our increased oversight will focus on understanding the reasons for those weaknesses and the actions needed to achieve sustained improvements.”

It was Dorman who raised the specter of plant closure.

Supplemental inspections of the plant which are now required because of its lowered performance rating will, Dorman said, “provide the NRC with additional information to be used in deciding whether the continued operation of the facility is acceptable and whether additional regulatory actions are necessary to arrest declining licensee/plant operations. The NRC may take additional regulatory actions as warranted, including additional supplemental inspections, a demand for information, or issuance of an order up to and including a plant shutdown.”

Are plant critics excited?

At Monday’s “No Escape from the Cape” rally – a Labor Day tradition for the Cape Downwinders – the two-dozen or so protesters who braved the bumper-to-bumper traffic to stand along the roadside and hold signs and banners were all business.

“This is our annual Labor Day rally at the bridge, the Sagamore Bridge,” Downwinder Arlene Williamson said as the wind whipped her hair into her face, “our rally to highlight the dangers of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant which is just 12 miles from here.”

“If there is an accident at Pilgrim that requires evacuation of the 10 mile EPZ (Emergency Protection Zone),” Cape resident Bill Maurer interjected, “this bridge right here, the Sagamore, will in fact be closed and we’d be trapped.”

But both Williamson and Maurer noted the recent news as well. Williamson said that if the plant cannot afford to properly maintain the plant, it should shut down. Maurer said with the plant at the “bottom of the heap” in terms of is performance, he had even less faith in the existing evacuation plans.

Judging by Entergy’s public reaction to the NRC’s critiques, the company doesn’t appear too worried.

“Entergy continues to operate Pilgrim Station safely and under the watchful eye of the independent inspectors at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, stated in a letter released in response to the governor’s letter.

“We look forward to a continued close and thorough examination of operations at Pilgrim,” Mohl added. “We have made changes and equipment upgrades that have already resulted in positive enhancements to operational reliability.

“We will work closely with the governor, the NRC and all stakeholders to make sure that we communicate the steps we are taking to improve plant operations as we continue to operate safely going forward.”

Follow Frank Mand on Twitter @frankmandOCM.

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