Pilgrim relicensing reaches critical mass

Nuclear power plants are a lot like baseball umpires: It’s far better for everyone when you don’t hear their names.

But the Pilgrim power plant in Plymouth is receiving a whole lot of attention lately, much more bad than good, and with the license set to expire in two weeks, the timing could not be worse. All that’s missing is a reappearance of the Clamshell Alliance to complete this back-to-the-future dispute.

The 40-year-old plant has already been the focus of the longest running relicensing process in the history of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, beginning six years ago. Outside of a few perfunctory protests, mainly from the one-person force of nature named Mary Lampert who heads the Pilgrim Watch group, most observers thought relicensing through 2032 would be a done deal.

But there’s been more than a few metaphoric meltdowns on the path and the concerns are reaching critical mass with the clock winding down to June 8, though it could keep operating until the process is complete one way or the other.

Earlier this month, the state’s top elected officials and members of the congressional delegation urged the NRC to slow down the process and consider many of the safety concerns that have been raised in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This came on the heels of the NRC panel reviewing the license sending a letter to top commission officials saying the permit was good to go even though there were still some unsettled issues.

But it’s now become a political hot potato with Republican members of the House Energy Committee, led by US Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, firing off a letter this week to the NRC demanding the license be approved and answering why it hasn’t been. They are concerned the foot-dragging could affect other relicensing processes.

The same day the Republicans sent the letter, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who lists US Rep. Ed Markey among his allies, stepped down. It may have nothing to do with Pilgrim, but the timing is suspect.

As all this is going on, Pilgrim’s owner Entergy is in a tong war with union members over a new contract and it is not playing out well for the Louisiana-based company. After sending non-essential personnel home – what union officials called a lockout – after the union authorized a strike, company officials were forced to bring workers back when operators had to shut down the plant because of a mechanical failure, the third emergency shutdown there in the last seven months.

The protests are also growing louder, bigger, and more common. Fourteen protesters were arrested over the weekend for trespassing when they tried to deliver a letter to plant officials and crossed the designated free speech line.

Even the natives are getting restless. The plant has had an uneasy alliance with Plymouth residents for decades, with townsfolk seeing the benefit of 650 jobs and millions in taxes as a trade-off for sleeping with one eye open and accepting that the schools keep a stock of iodine pills at the ready.

But earlier this month voters passed a nonbinding referendum instructing selectmen to let the NRC know the town wants the relicensing process to halt. But nonbinding does not mean unheard. It was the latest of 11 area ballot questions to pass opposing the relicensing.

                                                                                                                                                            –JACK SULLIVAN


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