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As Pilgrim plant nears closure, concerns rise over future of the site

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station as seen from the sea in Plymouth, Oct. 13, 2015. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station as seen from the sea in Plymouth, Oct. 13, 2015. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff) The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

As the clock ticks toward the closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, concerns and questions are growing in the region about how and when the aging plant in Plymouth will be decommissioned and what the future holds for the sprawling waterfront site.

Several Pilgrim watchdog groups that have been critical of the plant are warning that its owner lacks sufficient funds for the decommissioning and voicing concerns about how well the spent nuclear fuels will be safeguarded, among other issues.

Those matters were the subject of a regional forum held in Plymouth on Wednesday, March 23. Three specialists on the decommissioning process spoke at the event organized by the Pilgrim Coalition, which represents some of the watchdog groups.

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“People have a right, maybe an obligation, to be involved in the decommissioning process,” Raymond Shadis, a consultant with the New England Coalition and one of the speakers, said before the forum. Shadis worked on the decommissioning of the Maine Yankee nuclear plant from 1997 to 2005 in which citizens were involved.

Pilgrim is scheduled to close no later than June 2019, the company’s owner, Entergy Corp., announced last October. But Mary Lampert of Duxbury, executive director of the group Pilgrim Watch, said it was too early to celebrate. “We have serious safety concerns and economic concerns,” she said.

Lampert said many of the coalition’s issues mirror those in a resolution overwhelmingly adopted by Duxbury’s annual Town Meeting on March 14.

Entergy announced its decision to close the 44-year-old plant a month after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission designated Pilgrim one of the nation’s three least-safe reactors. It plans to announce no later than June a shutdown date, company spokesman Patrick O’Brien said Monday.

Under federal guidelines, Entergy has 60 years from the date of the plant closure to complete decommissioning.

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But Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer of Fairewinds Associates and one of the forum speakers, said it does not take 60 years to decommission a plant.

“These people took a risk with this plant for 40 years,” he said, of area residents. “They deserve to see it gone as soon as possible.”

Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, told the forum audience of more than 50 people that Entergy should work with the community to help it transition economically.

“The whole point of the forum was to start the conversation among interested members of the public about ‘decommissioning 101’ so there would be some understanding of what to expect and potentially economic and safety issues that can affect them and their community,” Lampert said.

Entergy has $870 million in a decommissioning trust fund, but Lampert said that is about $500 million short of what it is likely to need if the work began now, based on the $1.24 billion cost to decommission Entergy’s smaller Vermont Yankee plant.

Lampert said that the trust fund will grow through interest over time, but not enough to meet the expected rise in decommissioning costs.

Moreover, she said the NRC narrowly defines decommissioning as reducing radioactivity to safe levels. She said to terminate the plant license Pilgrim will also have to manage the spent fuel rods and conduct an overall site cleanup, which will push the price tag much higher.

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“They don’t have enough money, and because of that they will not be cleaning up the site right away. That means that the whole 1,600-acre site cannot be used to generate income for the town of Plymouth,” Lampert said.

She said it also left taxpayers at risk of having to shoulder decommissioning costs. To prevent that, she and other advocates are backing a bill filed by state Senator Dan Wolf requiring Entergy to pay $25 million annually into a state fund to help pay for decommissioning.

“It really bridges the gap between what we know will be the cost and the trust fund,” said Wolf, a Harwich ‘Democrat, whose bill was recently reported favorably out of a legislative committee. He said rather than taxpayers or ratepayers, “the corporation which has benefitted and made lots of profit on that plant” should foot the bill.

In a statement, Mike Twomey, Entergy’s vice president of external affairs, said, “Entergy Pilgrim Station has a federally required Nuclear Decommissioning Trust Fund that at the end of 2015 stood at approximately $900 million which is in full compliance with the funding assurances required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

“We do not support the legislation because it is contrary to federal law and inconsistent with the terms under which we acquired Pilgrim. Further, such legislation could significantly impede progress and constructive engagement with the local community by inviting lengthy and contentious litigation,” Twomey added.

O’Brien said in a statement, “The Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report is a description of planned decommissioning activities, a schedule for accomplishing them, and an estimate of expected costs. The report is due to the NRC within two years after a permanent shutdown of the plant and is made available for public review.”

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State Senator Vinny de Macedo, a Plymouth Republican who supports Wolf’s bill, said his concern is that the decommissioning is “going to be put off for an extended period of time.”

“Our goal is to try to get this expedited as quickly as possible, to bring that site back to a condition in which it can be reused and become a taxpaying entity again,” he said.

Kenneth Tavares, chairman of the Plymouth Board of Selectmen, said the town is still reviewing Wolf’s bill, but shares the concerns of advocates about what happens to the site post-closure.

“Certainly, our highest priority is the safety and security of our residents,” said Tavares, citing as other concerns the potential costs to the town if the nuclear waste remains on site and a desire to see the site returned to productive use.

Lampert said advocates are also focused on the fate of the spent fuel rods, currently housed in assemblies in a pool of water within the reactor.

She said after the plant closure, Entergy needs to expeditiously place the assemblies into dry casks for storage, and that those containers need to be located underground or hidden behind berms to avoid easy detection. And she said the firm must be required to continue off site emergency planning activities.

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Globe correspondent Bret Hauff contributed to this report. John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.