By Lydia Dennett and Halle Zander, Project on Government Oversight
Staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recommended this month that the agency deny requests from local protesters to hold a public hearing regarding the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The NRC seeks to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials at civilian nuclear sites. Yet, they have a long history of allowing safety problems at nuclear power plants to go uncorrected. One of the most recent examples is the current situation at Pilgrim. In 2013, the NRC introduced a new safety requirement to prevent nuclear disasters like the one in 2011 at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi Facility. Some of the reactors at Pilgrim have the same boiling-water design as those that melted down in Japan; however, the contractor managing and operating Pilgrim, Entergy, has yet to install the required safety equipment, known as a hardened containment venting system (HCVS), which could prevent disaster in case of a meltdown. Entergy requested that the NRC allow Pilgrim to use existing safety equipment until it shuts down in 2019.
In June 2016, Entergy asked the NRC for an extension, which would allow the company to delay installation until December 31, 2019—two and a half years after the original deadline. Since the facility is expected to shut down by June 2019, this delay would allow the plant to avoid installing the containment vents completely. Entergy claimed in its request that its FLEX Severe Accident Strategy “will preclude the occurrence of core damage.” Additionally, Entergy asserts that FLEX can respond to serious complications, such as those encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. Despite these claims, local citizens and activists remain concerned and skeptical about this relaxation request.
Local grassroots group Pilgrim Watch and seven other co-petitioners called upon the NRC to hold a public hearing to discuss Entergy’s request for an extension. According to the Weapons Complex Morning Briefing, the NRC refused this request on the grounds that the community was not entitled to a hearing under the Atomic Energy Act. In its written refusal, the NRC argued that holding such a hearing would turn “focused regulatory proceedings into amorphous public extravaganzas.”
The NRC has a questionable reputation for enforcing its own safety standards. As the Project On Government Oversight pointed out in 1999, NRC data showed that “high priority” safety issues remained unresolved for nearly 20 years. This pattern of leniency for plant operators has drawn concerns from many local activists.
Mary Lampert, a longtime organizer with Pilgrim Watch, told the Cape Cod Times that emergency equipment failed during a snowstorm in 2014 after the facility passed its federal inspection just a month before. Another local citizen, Plymouth Fire Chief Ed Bradley, expressed his distrust of Entergy, saying that the contractor had failed to notify him about a hydrogen gas leak at the facility. Entergy falsely reported to the NRC that it had informed Bradley at the time of the incident, but the NRC did not choose to take disciplinary action against Entergy for this false reporting. Without holding the NRC accountable for assessments and standards enforcement, nuclear safety remains questionable at Pilgrim.
The NRC’s history with Pilgrim does not inspire confidence in the city of Plymouth about the agency’s ability to conduct oversight. While the NRC contemplates Entergy’s relaxation request, local citizens continue to question their safety.