With Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station shut down and slated for decommissioning, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has indicated it will accept a license transfer from the present owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., to Holtec International, a New Jersey company. In legal terms, the transfer involves subsidiaries of both companies.
This has been one of the many gripes Mary Lampert, head of Pilgrim Watch, a watchdog group for the Plymouth plant, has had with the process. Lampert has argued that if either company should suffer a radiological accident, or in Holtec’s case should it get the license and later leave behind radioactive material that requires a costly second cleanup, the core corporations will be shielded from paying associated costs. Lampert has argued that conversely, whichever of these corporations has the license and can tap the $1 billion decommissioning trust fund linked to it, will reap hundreds of millions that will pass through the subsidiary to the parent corporation and be out of reach. Should the trust fund be exhausted and the subsidiary file for bankruptcy, any remaining costs would fall on Massachusetts taxpayers, she noted.
Both Pilgrim Watch and the commonwealth through Attorney General Maura Healy’s office have sought a hearing with the NRC to address a number of concerns they have with the license transfer. Lampert told The Times that in her opinion, the NRC hasn’t taken into consideration Pilgrim Watch’s or the state’s qualms. “One could say we’re in the first inning, and it looks like they’re calling the game,” she said.
A hearing may not be out of the question, however.
“The presidentially appointed commission that oversees the NRC is still considering the hearing requests,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheenan emailed. “However, the license transfer review and the adjudicatory process by which the hearing requests are evaluated are separate. That is why there was nothing that precluded the NRC staff from issuing a decision on the license transfer application while the requests for a hearing are still under review.”
Healey’s office recently expressed displeasure with the NRC’s announcement the transfer is likely to move forward.
“Our office is disappointed in this NRC staff decision, and is reviewing all available options to protect our residents and the interests of our state,” Healey spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore wrote. “We remain deeply concerned that this deal lacks sufficient funding to handle this closure and manage spent fuel on site, and will continue to push for adequate protections to ensure that Pilgrim is decommissioned safely.”
In a statement released yesterday, the NRC said it issued a Notice of Significant Licensing Action even though Massachusetts and Pilgrim Watch have requested a hearing.
“The NRC staff has completed its review of the Pilgrim license transfer application and is following its normal process for such proposals. As such, there is nothing that precludes the NRC staff from issuing a decision on the application while the requests for a hearing are still under consideration.”
The NRC went on to state it found Holtec’s resume satisfactory: “The NRC staff has concluded that Holtec and HDI [Holtec Decommissioning International] are financially and technically qualified to own the Pilgrim nuclear power plant and carry out the decommissioning of the facility. Prior to reaching this decision, the NRC staff carefully reviewed Holtec and HDI’s technical and financial qualifications; the adequacy of the plant’s decommissioning trust fund; and the companies’ ability to obtain the funds necessary to cover the cost of spent nuclear fuel management and on-site spent fuel storage until it is removed. The license transfer review and the adjudicatory process by which the hearing requests are considered are separate.”
The release also indicated the license could be modified: “The NRC staff’s decision does not preclude Commission actions that may require the modification of the conditions for the license transfer. Any impacts will be assessed following the completion of the adjudicatory process.”
Lampert was skeptical about modifications to the transfer, and said when and if the license is passed to Holtec, it was “highly unlikely” the NRC would tinker with the stipulations of the license. Lampert said she holds out hope the Massachusetts Department of Public Health will issue more stringent regulations on the acceptable amount of radioactivity in soil. This would help ensure a second cleanup of the Pilgrim site isn’t necessary. At present, she said, regulations about permissible levels of soil radiation are antiquated.
In a joint statement released by Entergy spokesman Patrick O’Brien and Holtec spokesman Joe Delmar, the companies expressed satisfaction with the NRC’s decision.
“We are pleased with the commission’s vote. Entergy and Holtec believe that the transfer of Pilgrim to Holtec for prompt decommissioning is in the best interests of the town of PIymouth and surrounding communities, the nearly 270 people from the region who work at Pilgrim, and the Commonwealth,” the spokesmen wrote. “We are confident that the license transfer application demonstrated that Holtec possesses the technical and financial qualifications required to safely decommission Pilgrim. We look forward to completing the transaction if regulatory approval is obtained.”