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NRC allows Pilgrim to forgo safety requirements

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.

By Globe Staff 

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to let the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station forgo some of the safety requirements it demanded of many of the nation’s nuclear plants after a tsunami ravaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011.

The decision, issued in a letter sent Monday to Pilgrim officials, angered critics of the Plymouth plant who worry it poses a safety threat, although it’s slated to close in June 2019.

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NRC officials told Entergy Corp., a Louisiana-based company that owns Pilgrim, that the 45-year-old plant does not have to comply with an order to harden its containment vent system, saying the current system “meets the intent and purpose” of the order despite “minor exceptions that do not impact the ability to safely and reliably” use the vents.

The NRC will also waive requirements for Pilgrim to comply with new seismic and flooding regulations issued after the radiation leak at Fukushima.

“We determined that in light of the plant’s remaining operational life span, the time to complete remaining flooding and seismic evaluations is insufficient to complete the assessments, design, and approval of changes to the plant,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC. “What’s more, we have not found that the implementation of changes in this area will result in a meaningful further improvement to the plant’s safety.”

The decision comes less than a month after a team of its inspectors concluded that Pilgrim remains safe to operate despite 11 “performance deficiencies.”

Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, a longtime critic of the plant, said the NRC’s decision “undermines the safety of Massachusetts communities living in the shadow of Pilgrim.”

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“When Entergy announced its intention to cease operations at Pilgrim, the NRC promised that it would hold Entergy responsible for running the plant as safely as possible until that time,” Markey said in a statement. “By providing exemptions from requirements meant to address the risk of terrorist attacks or severe accidents such as natural disasters, the NRC has broken its promise.”

He noted that Pilgrim shares the same design as the plant in Fukushima, and urged the agency to rescind its decision.

“Anything less represents an abdication of its role as a safety regulator,” Markey said.

Another longtime critic of the plant, Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, said the NRC is “gambling whether Pilgrim will kill anyone before it permanently shuts down.”

The agency put the company’s interests ahead of the community’s, she said.

“Sadly, it’s financial safety rather than public safety,” she said.

But NRC officials said Pilgrim’s current safety systems are sufficient to see the plant through the next two years. The plant began its last refueling cycle this month, an expensive process that requires it to add hundreds of workers and halt the production of power for about a month.

They said the plant’s so-called wetwell vents comply with most of the requirements for hardened containment, which aim to reduce the threat from a pressure buildup in the reactor that could lead to the leak of radioactive gases.

They acknowledged that the plant’s vents do not comply with the requirements for a dedicated power supply system capable of operating for 24 hours, the latest radiation monitoring equipment, or the desired testing and inspection system.

The NRC has also allowed Pilgrim to use various mitigating strategies to compensate for not complying with seismic and flooding requirements.

“The impact to the site from the reevaluated flooding hazards is limited and the site is able to cope with it,” Sheehan said.

“NRC inspectors verified that the mitigating strategies have been appropriately implemented,” he added.

In a statement, Pilgrim officials said they were pleased with the NRC’s decision.

“Our request was based on similar requests across the industry and our ability to show that the current wetwell vents installed . . . in 1988, along with additional enhancements to the plant made in 2015, as part of the lessons learned from Fukushima, allowed for this outcome,” said Patrick O’Brien, a Pilgrim spokesman.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @davabel.