Regulators approve Pilgrim nuclear plant's sale despite Governor's protest

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Despite the objections of Attorney General Maura Healey, the Baker administration and local advocacy groups, federal regulators approved the transfer of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station license to a company that plans to decommission the plant on an "accelerated basis."

Entergy, which bought the Plymouth plant from Boston Edison in 1999, is selling it to Holtec International, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been reviewing the requested license transfer since last year. The NRC approved the transfer Friday, announcing that Holtec International will be the owner of the plant and that its subsidary Holtec Decommissioning International will serve as the decommissioning operator.

The NRC said its order approving the license transfer is effective immediately but that the transfer will not actually take place until the sale of the plant is finalized. The transfer includes the dry cask spent fuel storage installation at Pilgrim.

The plant, which employed about 600 people and had been generating about 680 megawatts of electricity per year since coming online in 1972, permanently ceased operations May 31.

"We thank all of our employees at Pilgrim for their dedication and service over many decades, and we wish the best to all of those who are transitioning to work on decommissioning the Pilgrim nuclear facility," Entergy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Leo Denault said in a statement. "Community stakeholders and transitioning employees will benefit from a facility that is promptly dismantled and decommissioned safely."

The approval comes as Attorney General Maura Healey, Gov. Charlie Baker's energy and environment secretariat and members of the state's Congressional delegation mounted an effort to block the transfer until the NRC held a full hearing on concerns over Holtec's ability to safely decommission the nuclear plant, the company's financial stability and its alleged involvement in a kickback scheme.

"The Commonwealth does not believe that Holtec has met the NRC's financial and technical qualification requirements for license transfer approval," Healey's office wrote to the NRC this week.

"Indeed, the Commonwealth has serious concerns about Holtec's financial and technical capacity to complete the work at Pilgrm. At a minimum, this history requires a heightened degree of scrutiny by the NRC and its Staff."

The NRC did not respond to News Services inquiries Thursday about the status of the Pilgrim license transfer application. In a release Friday morning, the agency said it issued the order on Thursday. It also refuted the attorney general's argument.

"In reviewing the license transfer application, the NRC staff considered the Holtec and HDI technical and financial qualifications, the adequacy of Pilgrim's decommissioning trust funds to complete the radiological decommissioning of the plant, and the adequacy of plans to manage the onsite storage of spent nuclear fuel until it can be removed for storage or disposal elsewhere," NRC said in the release.

"The staff concluded that Holtec and HDI met the regulatory, legal, technical and financial requirements necessary to qualify as licensees."

On Friday, Healey's office said it will review the options it still has to rectify what it called a "misguided decision" by the federal regulators.

"We are deeply disappointed in the NRC's misguided decision to approve the license transfer and trust fund exemption requests, and its failure to meaningfully consult with our state prior to doing so. We continue to have serious concerns about Holtec's financial capacity, technical qualifications, and judgment to safely and properly clean up the site, and store and manage Pilgrim's spent nuclear fuel," Healey spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis said. "We are reviewing all of our available options to ensure the health, safety and interests of our residents and the environment are protected."

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, who sits on a Congressional committee with jurisdiction over the NRC, said the agency "is abdicating any responsibility for protecting public health and safety with its rushed and uninformed license transfer for the Pilgrim nuclear power plant."

"The opaque process that disregarded local resident and state input reflects the Commission's choice to prioritize industry timelines over due diligence and transparency. Holtec's math on how it will pay for decommissioning does not add up. Holtec's unwillingness to even negotiate an agreement with local stakeholders -- the ones who will be living next door to nuclear waste for years to come -- is unacceptable," Markey said. "I have repeatedly called on Holtec to be a good neighbor and for the Commission to be a good regulator, but those calls of concern were ignored."

The Baker administration said it "believes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff should not have made the decision to approve the license transfer prior to the Commission ruling on the concerns raised by the administration and Attorney General."

"Both offices remain deeply committed to ensuring the Pilgrim Nuclear Power station is decommissioned in a manner that protects the safety of the public and environment," Energy and Environmental Affairs spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said.

Late Thursday, four state senators and six state representatives -- Sens. Viriato deMacedo, Julian Cyr, John Keenan and Patrick O'Connor along with Reps. William Crocker, Josh Cutler, Dylan Fernandes, Sarah Peake, Kathleen LaNatra and Tim Whelan -- issued a statement in support of Healey and the administration. They asked the NRC to give the issue a full hearing before acting on the license transfer application.

Based on previous filing with the NRC, Holtec plans to transfer fuel from Pilgrim between 2019 and 2021 and restore the site to meet NRC requirements by 2027. Activity would continue at the spent fuel storage installation until 2062 or 2063, and the Pilgrim site would be fully restored by 2064, according to the company's filings.

In the weeks following its shutdown, Pilgrim removed all fuel from its reactor. The NRC informed Pilgrim that its future oversight will be led by its Division of Nuclear Materials Safety "in accordance with our decommissioning power reactor inspection program."

"The objectives of the decommissioning inspection program are to verify that decommissioning activities are being conducted safely, that spent fuel is safely being stored, and that site operations and license termination activities are in conformance with applicable regulatory requirements, license commitments, and management controls," the NRC wrote to Pilgrim's owners at Entergy in June.