PLYMOUTH — Officials gathered Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Hotel 1620 in downtown Plymouth for a public input meeting regarding the decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station and a potential license transfer from the current license holder to another company which is promising a significantly faster decommissioning process.
Representatives were present from the federal United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Louisiana-based Entergy, Inc., which is the nuclear plant’s current owner and license holder, New Jersey-based Holtec International, which is seeking permission from the NRC to take over Pilgrim’s license from Entergy, and Comprehensive Decommissioning International– a joint venture formed in 2018 between Holtec and Montréal, Canada-based SNC-Lavalin– which would, according to plans, be Holtec’s subcontractor for decommissioning the station.
Pilgrim, the commonwealth’s only currently operating nuclear power station, located off Rocky Hill Road in Plymouth, will cease to produce power at midnight May 31, 2019, according to an Entergy representative and will then move into a decommissioning phase.
Officials presented two NRC-approved plans to the public in a contentious, three-hour meeting. Entergy’s plan, known as SAFSTOR, would see spent radioactive fuel rods moved into dry storage on-site, with the plant being maintained and monitored in a manner that allows radioactivity to decay over time. It is then moved into what is known as DECON, where the plant is dismantled and the property is decontaminated. The process can take up to 60 years before the NRC finally allows the license to be terminated.
Holtec, which, said Joy Russell, a Holtec senior vice president, is the world’s leader in spent nuclear fuel management and storage, promised that her company could decommission the plant much faster. Through efficiencies created by using Holtec products, CDI could decommission the site, moving it through SAFSTOR into DECON much faster, they say, with plans to restore most of the site by 2026.
An NRC monitored trust fund is maintained by the license holder to ensure that enough money for the decommissioning process exists. If the license transfer is approved, Holtec would receive the decommissioning trust fund from Entergy, worth over a billion dollars as of the last report submitted to the federal government.
Russell said, “Holtec’s used fuel storage and transport expertise is in use by 116 nuclear reactors around the world. The spent nuclear fuel and irradiated components, which represent 98 percent of the radioactive source at a decommissioning site will be stored in Holtec canisters … Holtec’s partner in CDI, SNC-Lavalin, has over 30 years of managing decommissioning projects for both commercial nuclear facilities and government entities around the world.”
But Holtec itself has no experience in decommissioning any nuclear power plant in the world and has recently made headlines in California at the Southern California Edison San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station for possible NRC safety violations where Holtec dry-storage casks are used.
A four-inch loose metal screw was located in a cask about to be loaded with spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre. Holtec made design changes to the casks which they did not report to federal regulators, according to media reports. They said the changes were not significant enough to report, but the NRC is investigating.
After this story was originally published, a representative of Holtec and CDI contacted the Express on behalf of Russell, and in an emailed statement said, “A loose screw was found in a container during Holtec’s receipt inspection; part of quality assurance measure that Holtec performs on all canisters before fuel is loaded, to ensure the safety of canisters used for spent nuclear fuel.”
Neither plan addresses the fact that radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods will remain on the site for hundreds of years, if not indefinitely, if they are not transported elsewhere by the federal government. At the meeting, representatives of the NRC, a federal agency, blamed Congress for their inaction on the matter.
More than a dozen members of the public spoke against Holtec’s decommissioning plan, some more than once, citing fears of terrorism, climate-change and environmental concerns, having enough money in the decommissioning trust fund, concerns about the types of cannisters used, among others. Only one person spoke in favor of Holtec’s decommissioning plan.
Mary “Pixie” Lampert, of Duxbury, spoke at the meeting against Holtec’s plans on behalf of the Duxbury Selectmen and later spoke to the Express. She said that she is most concerned about the decommissioning trust fund running out before decontamination is completed. She also does not want spent nuclear fuel to be stored on-site, saying that although moving it to higher ground as Holtec has suggested is better than nothing, it is still vulnerable to terrorism.
Claire B.W. Müller, of Boston, asked, “Are Holtec and CDI willing to go above and beyond to protect the spent fuel from terrorism and climate change or will they just do ‘the floor’?
At the meeting, Russell responded that she was a nuclear scientist and had to live near nuclear power plants, too. She later responded to the question in writing.
“Holtec and CDI are committed to safety, security and being responsible stewards of the environment.”
The spent fuel canisters will be stored at 75 feet above mean sea level, and some 350 feet from Rocky Hill Road. Holtec’s canisters have been tested to withstand assaults by both human and natural events including missiles, planes, tornadoes and earthquakes. There are no “minimum standards” when it comes to security.
The current regulations imposed on the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel have been vetted by the U.S. Government for terrorism, environmental challenges and other hazards. The current regulatory standards are the result of these professional studies and validation by third parties.
Security of the spent fuel pad includes 24/7 on-site personnel, intrusion detection, and fencing. For reasons of security we cannot go into further details. Safety, security and environmental protection are at the heart of all that we do,” she said.
Müller, who said she grew up in Duxbury, responded to Russell, “I’m of course glad to hear Holtec intends to uphold current regulations for health and safety (that is a given: the “floor” of what is necessary), but the fact is our world is changing faster than our currently shutdown, underfunded federal agencies can regulate and dysfunctional Congress can legislate.
Doing the minimum will not be enough. Changing and ever worsening climate science shows that sea level rise, as well as world terrorism … means we need a decommissioning that goes above and beyond. The health of our families, our communities and the land demands that.”
The controversial meeting is likely only the beginning of more to come as activists such as Lampert and Müller say they plan to continue to challenge the license transfer.