It looks like the proposed sale of the soon-to-be-closed Pilgrim nuclear power plant might not be such a done deal after all.
On Wednesday, the state, led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and a prominent citizens nuclear watchdog group, Pilgrim Watch, asked to intervene in the federal review process of the pending deal.
In petitions filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both groups raised concerns about the proposed license transfer from Entergy Nuclear Operations Inc. to a New Jersey-based subsidiary of Holtec International.
Entergy and Holtec filed a joint license transfer application with the NRC on Nov. 16, 2018. If the NRC accepts the license transfer, Holtec will own the physical plant in Plymouth and gain control of its decommissioning trust fund — a big pot of money currently worth about $1 billion.
Holtec plans to use this money to decommission the plant after it ceases operations later this year. Holtec says it can disassemble the plant, decontaminate the property, and get all nuclear waste into dry cask storage within eight years. Entergy had said its decommissioning process would take 60 years.
At the heart of both petitions to intervene are questions about Holtec’s financial security and ability to safely decommission the plant and store radioactive waste in casks onsite, until the federal government approves a permanent depository, like Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
"Entergy and Holtec have failed to demonstrate that, if allowed, [the license transfer agreement] will ensure adequate protection of public health, safety, and the environment,” Healey writes in her petition, which is backed by the Baker administration. “There exists a genuine dispute about whether Holtec has the financial ability to decommission and restore the site and manage the spent fuel onsite indefinitely."
Pilgrim Watch’s petition raises similar concerns: “Holtec makes incorrect assumptions and ignores significant facts[,] each of which will result in additional costs, above and beyond the funds available for decommissioning.”
Holtec said at a public meeting last month that the $1 billion in the plant's decommissioning trust fund is more than sufficient. The company projects it will have $3.6 million to spare — a cushion that critics say is too small to cover unanticipated expenses, and that could leave Massachusetts taxpayers on the hook for overruns.
Pilgrim Watch makes such claims, suggesting things like unforeseen project delays or the discovery of radioactive contamination on the property could result in a costlier decommissioning process.
Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch called Holtec's cost estimates "fantasy" at a meeting Wednesday night of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Plymouth.
"Show us the money. We need some more in the [decommissioning] pot," she said.
Pilgrim Watch also contends that the proposed license transfer has not met certain environmental standards and should be subject to a new federal environmental review.
"[The] NRC requires environmental impact statements for major federal actions,” the petition states. “Approval of Holtec’s proposal as a whole would constitute a major federal action.”
The state's only remaining nuclear plant, which began operations in 1972 and has a spotty safety record, is slated for permanent shutdown by June 1.
Pilgrim Watch cites that safety record in its petition.
"Pilgrim has a long history of bad fuel, blown filters, leaks, releases, buried hazardous materials, and mismanagement," the group says. "Neither Holtec nor the NRC knows what contamination exists at the [plant] site."
"Holtec International respects all U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceedings, including the right of individuals and organizations to intervene," Joy Russell, Holtec's senior vice president of business development and communications, wrote in an email. "We believe our company's industry-leading expertise in the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel, combined with our joint venture company's expertise in decommissioning is the perfect partnership to safely decommission Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. We remain committed to working with the stakeholders in the region to demonstrate our environmental and economic commitment to the Pilgrim project."
The petitioners stop short of asking the NRC to block the sale, but suggest the agency should not allow it to go forward as currently proposed. Both petitioning parties have requested a hearing with the NRC to discuss their concerns.
In an email, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency is reviewing the petitions and hearing requests, but said “it is too soon to say if the reviews will impact the staff’s ongoing evaluation of the Pilgrim license transfer application.”
Entergy spokesman Patrick O’Brien also said his company is reviewing the filings.
“We believe the transfer of Pilgrim to Holtec for prompt and safe decommissioning is the best option for Plymouth and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he wrote in an email.
Both Holtec and Entergy have asked the NRC to make a decision about the license transfer before the June 1 shutdown, but the federal agency has declined to say whether this is possible.
“Typically, a license transfer review takes about a year," the NRC's Sheehan says.
"During a pre-submittal meeting last year, we informed the firms that while the NRC staff will endeavor to complete its review in the requested time-frame, that will depend upon several factors, including the amount of time it takes them to respond to our requests for additional information on the application; any unanticipated addition of scope to the review; and reviews by NRC advisory committees or hearing-related activities."
It’s unclear what sort of delay this week’s filings could cause.
With additional reporting by The Associated Press
This article was originally published on February 21, 2019.
This segment aired on February 21, 2019.