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N.J. company trying to buy Pilgrim plant faces questions over nuclear waste

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is scheduled to be closed at the end of May. Holtec officials say they would expect to fill another 54 concrete cylinders with spent nuclear fuel.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2017
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is scheduled to be closed at the end of May. Holtec officials say they would expect to fill another 54 concrete cylinders with spent nuclear fuel.

PLYMOUTH — With only a few weeks left before Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station shuts down, members of the citizens advisory panel overseeing the plant’s decommissioning had questions last month about a New Jersey company’s plan to buy Pilgrim and secure its nuclear waste. But they weren’t getting answers.

Where would Holtec International get the money to move spent fuel to a long-term storage site?

“It would be irresponsible of me to speculate on how that would be funded,” Andrea Sterdis, Holtec’s vice president of regulatory affairs, told the members of the state’s Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

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Where was the company getting the money to buy Pilgrim? “That’s proprietary, confidential information,” she said.

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Would the company ultimately donate the land to Plymouth? “It would be irresponsible for me to discuss that,” she replied.

Sean Mullin, the panel’s chairman, was livid.

“The answers that you provided are completely and utterly disappointing and unacceptable,” he said. “The full lack of transparency, from my perspective, is appalling.”

His frustration echoed concerns that have been raised in recent weeks by other state and local officials about Holtec’s bid to buy the 47-year-old plant from Entergy Corp., which plans to close Pilgrim by the end of May. Many of them worry that taxpayers could be required to cover the costs if the company doesn’t live up to its promises.

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Holtec has pledged to decommission Pilgrim in just eight years — well ahead of the 60 years allowed by federal rules — though it has never owned or decommissioned a nuclear plant. The company specializes in the storage and transportation of nuclear waste.

In a recent filing with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Attorney General Maura Healey wrote that the company’s plan amounts to a “wholly misguided premise” that asks local and federal officials simply to “trust us.”

Healey has formally asked the NRC, which must approve the sale, to grant Massachusetts a hearing to address its concerns. Holtec has objected.

Officials at Holtec and Entergy insist the sale is in the best interests of Plymouth and the surrounding region, as it would expedite the plant’s decommissioning.

Holtec officials said they expect it will take less than three years to remove the spent nuclear fuel from Pilgrim and store it in dry casks. Pilgrim already has stored nuclear waste in 17 of the steel-reinforced concrete cylinders. Officials expect to fill another 45 casks, which will remain in Plymouth until the federal government finds a permanent home for them.

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The company aims to do that while making a profit.

If the sale is approved, Holtec would assume control of Pilgrim’s nuclear decommissioning trust fund, which has amassed more than $1 billion from surcharges to ratepayers. If the work costs less than that, the company would keep what remains.

Holtec would also be paid for the decommissioning work from the trust fund, and the company would receive federal subsidies to store the waste in Plymouth. Those payments could continue in perpetuity if the federal government fails to build a repository for the nuclear waste.

Holtec plans to subcontract the work to Comprehensive Decommissioning International, a newly formed company based in New Jersey that is jointly owned by Holtec and SNC-Lavalin Group, a Montreal-based construction company. SNC-Lavalin Group has experience decommissioning nuclear plants.

“We believe our company’s industry-leading expertise in the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel, combined with our joint venture company’s . . . expertise in decommissioning is the perfect partnership to safely decommission Pilgrim,” Joy Russell, a spokeswoman for Holtec, said in a statement.

But state officials have raised doubts. In the request for a hearing before the NRC, Healey said Holtec’s plans rely too much on trust.

“Trust that the Pilgrim decommissioning trust fund contains a sufficient amount of money for Holtec, on its first attempt, to decommission and restore the site . . . at a pace never previously achieved,” Healey wrote. “Trust that the amount remaining . . . will be enough to manage spent nuclear fuel safely onsite for decades. And trust that the NRC oversight will prevent a funding shortfall as an otherwise asset-less Holtec embarks on this unprecedented effort.”

She argued the NRC has no assurance it could recoup any costs that exceed the money in the trust fund, because the company’s subsidiary overseeing the decommissioning has no assets. She also noted how Holtec has “carefully avoided” making any commitments to use hundreds of millions of additional dollars it hopes to receive from the US Department of Energy for the decommissioning process.

In its response to the state, Holtec told NRC officials that the state’s concerns are “baseless” and “immaterial.”

“The strict oversight and reporting requirements in the NRC’s decommissioning funding regulations provide reasonable assurance that funding will remain adequate,” the company’s lawyers wrote.

NRC officials said they’re reviewing the state’s concerns, as well as those raised by Pilgrim Watch, a local advocacy group that has also requested a hearing. However, their review of Holtec’s bid to buy Pilgrim is on a separate track. They could issue a decision about the sale this summer, before holding a hearing.

As far as the state’s concerns, Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, noted that his agency reviews the financial stability of all nuclear plant trust funds each year.

“We have made clear in the past that we will hold owners accountable for completing the radiological cleanup of their sites,” he said. “That can include working with the Department of Justice to pursue remedies.”

That could also mean pursuing a parent company if one of its subsidiaries declares bankruptcy, he said.

As a precedent, a federal judge last week rejected a bankruptcy reorganization plan by the owner of four nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio, FirstEnergy Solutions Corp., that would have allowed it to sever ties with its parent company, Sheehan noted.

Holtec’s plan to decommission Pilgrim in eight years is well within reason, others noted.

For example, Maine Yankee, a 900-megawatt plant that produced power for 24 years, was decommissioned in just nine years, while Connecticut Yankee, a 580-megawatt plant that generated electricity for 28 years, took 10 years to decommission.

Of the nine nuclear plants in the United States that used a similar decommissioning method, it took an average of nearly 18 years, according to NRC data. One of those plants in Colorado took just eight years to decommission, though it operated for only 16 years; another plant in South Dakota took 40 years to decommission, even though it produced power for just four years.

“It doesn’t take so much time if you focus on one plant,” said Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s policy organization in Washington, D.C. “Holtec is very familiar with the business and nuclear technology. I have confidence they can decommission Pilgrim efficiently.”

But many of the members of the citizens advisory panel don’t share her confidence.

After the recent meeting with officials from Holtec, panel member Dan Wolf, a former state senator, called the company’s plan “one of the most egregious cases of socializing risk and privatizing profits.”

“The financial risk and the public safety risk is ultimately going to be borne by the public,” he said. “And the profit is ultimately going to be gained by a small group of investors or a couple of corporations.”

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