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Feds allow Pilgrim nuclear plant to stay open amid safety concerns

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Federal regulators said the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station near Boston can remain open, even as they acknowledged problems related to safety during a three-hour meeting with residents and elected officials last week.

At a packed hearing, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released the preliminary results of a inspection sparked after the unintentional release of an internal NRC email that described Pilgrim staff as “overwhelmed” trying to improve security.  The email listed several safety-related issues plaguing the facility, including failure of plant workers to follow established industry protocols, broken equipment, lack of required expertise among plant experts, and hastily developed corrective actions.

The email was forwarded to a local newspaper, which then outraged local residents and environmental activists, prompting local and state officials, including Gov. Charlie Baker, to call for an update.  NRC had previously ranked Pilgrim among the three worst power plants in the nation in terms of safety after a series of unplanned shutdowns, while activists have been calling for the plant to be immediately shut down.  The plant is currently scheduled to close in 2019.

Despite the issues listed in the email, the NRC said they were being addressed and were not serious enough to warrant closing the plant, and would not interfere with a scheduled refueling this spring.

“One of the purposes of this inspection was to dive deep into this station and see if that basis for closing was there,” said NRC regional administrator Dan Dorman, to the New York Times. “And what I’m hearing right now from this team is they didn’t find it.”

At the meeting, spokesman Patrick O’Brien of Entergy, which owns the plant, said that the facility is going to shut down in 2019 anyway for financial reasons, however shutting it down early would result in penalties for failing to uphold its commitment to the region’s electrical grid.

“The key for us is that the NRC said the plant is safe to operate,” he said.

For opponents of the plant, the decision by the NRC to allow the facility to continue to operate was a disappointment.  However, some activists felt emboldened by the NRC’s willingness to engage the public and admit that there were issues with the plant.  Diane Turco, leader of a citizens group opposed to plant who was the unintended recipient of the NRC email, said their intent is to convince Gov. Baker to rescind the plant’s operating license.

“We don’t know exactly what our next step is,” she told the Times, “but we certainly aren’t going away or taking this lying down.”

The NRC is scheduled to provide its final report on the plant in March or April, while another public meeting will be held March 21.

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