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NRC email fuels concerns about Plymouth nuclear plant's safety

"We are observing current indications of a safety culture problem that a bunch of talking probably won't fix."

Armed with an internal email documenting safety concerns, activists opposed to the continued operation of a Plymouth nuclear plant pressed Gov. Charlie Baker again on the issue and a senator from Cape Cod identified the plant as the state's "biggest public safety threat."

Diane Turco, president of the Cape Downwinders, received an email from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official updating others on the ongoing inspection of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. It appears Turco's email address was mistakenly included among the addresses of NRC officials on a group email.

While the governor addressed the Massachusetts Investor Conference late Wednesday morning five Cape Codders and one activist from Boston delivered a copy of the email to a Baker staffer and asked Baker to use his bully pulpit to urge immediate closure of the plant.

The email, which was reported on by the Cape Cod Times, details problems, such as "poor maintenance, poor engineering practices, and equipment reliability problems," concluding with a frank assessment about the plant.

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"We are observing current indications of a safety culture problem that a bunch of talking probably won't fix," read the assessment signed by Region 1 Operations Branch Chief Don Jackson, who described his email as an update of inspection activities at Pilgrim. At another point he pins some blame on "a lack of resources across many groups."

Sen. Dan Wolf of Harwich said the email "validates" concerns that he said should be taken seriously by those in authority.

"What is it going to take for this administration and for public safety officials in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to understand that this is the biggest public safety threat that the citizens of the Commonwealth face?" asked Wolf, a Democrat and possible candidate for governor in 2018.

The founder of Cape Air, Wolf told the News Service his alarm was raised on a visit to the plant five years ago.

"I know when I see aging, under-maintained equipment and I have been concerned since we were in that plant," Wolf said. He said an uncontrolled release of radioactivity or a problem with the plant's spent fuel is much more likely than a meltdown, and would compromise the state's safety and economy.

The NRC on Wednesday said the plant on the shores of Cape Cod Bay is considered safe.

"We consider Pilgrim to be safe. If our inspection team identifies a concern that in any way calls that into question, it will elevate that to NRC senior management," NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the News Service. He said the inspection team will visit the plant again the week of Jan. 9, brief the company on preliminary findings and then have up to 45 days to issue a report.

The federal agency has jurisdiction over nuclear plants, and Baker has previously deferred to federal officials when asked about the safety of the plant.

"Is he going to stop assuming everything's OK?" asked activist Bill Maurer, before heading into the governor's office. Maurer described the NRC letter as "disturbing" and said the NRC has made similar points to those outlined in the email but in a more "sanitized" fashion.

"Our inspector teams always engage in frank discussions and are encouraged to have a questioning attitude," Sheehan told the News Service.

Baker told reporters Wednesday he is anxious to see the final report from the NRC and raised the possibility of involving the congressional delegation.

"First of all, we haven't seen the final report. We're obviously anxious to see the report. The feds haven't shared it with us, but we expect them, as the overseers and the regulators of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, to do what's in the best interest of the people of New England. That thing just doesn't serve us, it serves people across the region," Baker said. "But we're anxious to see the report and we're anxious to see what the feds do on this, and if we need to pull the congressional delegation into the conversation to help get the federal government to do what they need to do, we will."

Owned and operated by Entergy, Pilgrim plans to refuel next year before closing in 2019. The plant is in the midst of a "wide-ranging review" and is one of only three reactors to be placed in the NRC's "Multiple/Repetitive Degraded Cornerstone" category, one step from the "Unacceptable Performance" category.

"We have worked hard to address the issues that led to station performance decline and look forward to demonstrating to the NRC that we have made significant progress in these areas through the inspection process," Entergy spokesman Patrick O'Brien told the Times.

"We've been assured by the federal government that this is a matter that is being reviewed by the federal government, that there are no immediate threats to the people of our commonwealth, and we need to rely on the federal government to do their work, to be open and transparent about that process, and rely on them to advise us if that condition changes," said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who said safety is paramount.

Anti-Pilgrim activists won a meeting with former Gov. Deval Patrick after occupying one of his offices, and they have not yet met with Baker.

On Wednesday, the governor's constituent services director, John Tapley, received a copy of the email from the activists and said he had no comment when Turco asked for his thoughts on it.

Turco told the News Service her group planned to step up its calls on all elected officials, including Attorney General Maura Healey, to insist on the plant's immediate closure.

"This isn't a candy factory. This is a nuclear reactor that threatens all of Boston," Turco told Tapley.

Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, responded to the email Tuesday informing the regulators that he had distributed it to reporters and congressional staffers.

"We appreciate the status update and look forward to the final inspection report reflecting these findings (i.e., not being whitewashed)," Lochbaum wrote.

In a section of his report described as "common causal insights," Jackson wrote, "Overall, we are beginning to see a picture where the people seem to be willing and happy/excited about change, but actions seem to be marginalized during implementation. Some of this marginalization seems to be due to not understanding what the end state should look like, and frankly some of it seems to be due to a lack of resources across many groups. We are probing this further, as it is a key to making a recommendation whether or not the plan will be effective/sustainable."

Another section of the report described a flange that has been leaking and repaired three times over the years. Mentioning another area of leakage outside of a drywell, the email states, "This seems strange for a Column 4 plant where Safety Culture is a fundamental problem area."

Jackson wrote that corrective actions at the plant "seem to have been hastily developed and implemented, and some have been circumvented as they were deemed too hard to complete." Jackson wrote that the licensee "is being responsive, but very disjointed in their ability to populate meetings and answer questions, staffing problems seem to impact how fast the licensee can respond." He added, "The plant seems overwhelmed by just trying to run the station."

Jackson's email was dated Monday evening and it was forwarded to Turco on Tuesday morning.

Turco told the News Service she does not know why she received it. She said she had not been contacted by the NRC after receiving the email.

 
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