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Federal regulators approve sale of Pilgrim nuclear plant

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.
The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file)

A year after the company that owns Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station announced it was selling the now-shuttered plant, the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday approved the sale to Holtec International, a New Jersey company that has never decommissioned a nuclear plant.

“The NRC staff has concluded that Holtec . . . [is] financially and technically qualified to own the Pilgrim nuclear power plant and carry out the decommissioning of the facility,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the commission.

The plant in Plymouth shut down in May after 47 years of producing electricity.

The decision is contingent on the approval of each of the four NRC commissioners before a Monday deadline, Sheehan said.

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Holtec, which specializes in the storage and transportation of nuclear waste, has promised to decommission the site in eight years, well ahead of the 60 years allowed by federal rules. State and local officials have criticized the proposed sale, saying Holtec has not shown that its plan has enough safeguards to protect the public.

Environmental officials, in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office, had petitioned the NRC to hold a hearing on the state’s concerns before deciding on the sale.

“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,” said Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey. “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.”

In a statement, Senator Edward J. Markey called for more hearings to review the sale, saying “too many questions remain and too few answers have been provided.”

“From financing to emergency response planning, we have asked for answers and we have received only unacceptable silence.”

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The commission’s staff said they are still reviewing the state’s request for a hearing and noted that their approval could be reversed.

“The order . . . is subject to the commission’s authority to rescind, modify, or condition the approved transfer, based on the outcome of any post-effectiveness hearing,” they wrote.

The NRC’s decision came after regulators “carefully reviewed” Holtec’s technical and financial qualifications, the adequacy of the plant’s decommissioning trust fund, and the company’s ability to cover the costs of managing and storing the spent nuclear fuel at Pilgrim, Sheehan said.

The decision also grants Holtec an exemption to use some of the trust fund, which has more than $1 billion, to manage the spent fuel and other “site restoration” activities.

Pilgrim still has nearly 3,000 highly radioactive fuel rods cooling in its spent-fuel pools and more than 1,000 encased nearby in 17 massive steel-and-concrete drums known as dry casks. It will be years before the rods are cool enough to store in casks, which could remain on the property indefinitely.

Officials at Entergy Corp., a Louisiana energy conglomerate that has owned the plant since 1999, praised the decision.

“Entergy and Holtec believe that the transfer of Pilgrim to Holtec for prompt decommissioning is in the best interests of the town of Plymouth and surrounding communities, the nearly 270 people from the region who work at Pilgrim, and the Commonwealth,” said Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy. “We look forward to completing the transaction.”

In recent months, Holtec officials have repeatedly refused to answer questions about their proposal, saying that any response could interfere with their efforts to complete the sale.

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Last spring, members of the state’s Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel grew frustrated when Andrea Sterdis, Holtec’s vice president of regulatory affairs, wouldn’t answer their questions.

When asked where would Holtec International get the money to move spent fuel to a long-term storage site, she said, “It would be irresponsible of me to speculate on how that would be funded.”

When asked from where the company is getting the money to buy Pilgrim, she responded: “That’s proprietary, confidential information.”

Sean Mullin, the panel’s chairman, called Tuesday’s approval a disgrace.

“The NRC’s process is a complete sham and is designed to prevent the concerns of the citizens and their local and state governments and elected officials from being heard,” he said. “Congress must finally act to correct this problem.”

Officials have also raised questions about whether the plant’s owner would continue making annual payments to the state to cope with potential emergencies, ensure public safety, and comply with environmental laws. The plant, since it stopped producing electricity, is no longer required to do so.

“Now that the NRC has approved the sale . . . Massachusetts must move swiftly to ensure that health and safety protections are reaffirmed and continue,” said State Senator Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat. “It’s critical that Holtec prove their commitment to public safety.”


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

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