In 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the Pilgrim Nuclear facility’s operating license for 20 years. Despite that endorsement, the plant experienced an excessive number of shutdowns in 2013, which prompted the NRC to degrade Pilgrim’s safety performance rating.

This not only has galvanized local groups seeking to shut down the aging facility, but also has triggered closer NRC scrutiny of the plant. Last week, the NRC held a forum to review Pilgrim’s safety performance with Entergy, the company that operates the plant. 

NRC and Entergy officials sat across from each other at the front of the room. Max Schneider, the Senior NRC Resident Inspector at Pilgrim said NRC regulators regularly inspect maintenance activities, spent fuel storage, safety, and other risk factors. They then use a complex color-coding system to grade the performance of nuclear power plants. Such a complicated system has resulted Pilgrim ranking among the nine worst-performing nuclear power plants in the country. NRC regulators wanted to know what brought about this condition, and what Entergy is doing to rectify it.

Entergy officials outlined a number of steps they say they’re taking to address recent problems: increased training, better equipment performance and maintenance, and leadership improvement. Pilgrim General manager Steve Verocci said Entergy also is working more closely with NStar and other grid operators to better manage risk assessment.

"For us to reach out and attempt to control those things was not something we were doing in the past. We were controlling our own switchyard," Verocci said. "We were controlling our own equipment. In this case, we’re working with them to control the risk in their switchyards."

Even so, the NRC put Entergy on notice that it will be looking for hard evidence of improved performance in the coming months, as in this exchange between Pilgrim site vice president John Dent and NRC Region 1 administrator Bill Dean.

According to Dent, we are seeing objective – clear, objective evidence that performance is improving and moving in the right direction, so we have one objective in mind…that’s the safe, efficient operation of this power plant. And the best way we know how to do that is to drive our performance back to the level of industry excellence and sustain it at that level. Bill Dean added that "none of us are from the state of Missouri, but I think we’re in the mindset of 'Show me.' And we’re gonna look for sustained, demonstrated performance."

Later in the meeting, the public was invited to speak. Anna Baker of Marshfield, the founder of the Pilgrim Coalition, wondered about the large number of spent fuel rods at Pilgrim. "The nuclear waste site has really become a nuclear waste dump," and more than that, "it’s in our back yard." 

Mary Lampert of the group Pilgrim Watch agreed, and also expressed concern about the containment building, referencing the Fukushima meltdown. Wellfleet resident Ted Thomas, the Commissioner on the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Committee added "with all the knowledge at hand, and the outcries of the 15 Cape towns who voted to close Pilgrim - the Cape Cod National Seashore, the cape Cod Commission, the peoples’ Federal and State representatives including the Governor of Massachusetts, why aren’t their voices being heard?

Many of the speakers would like to see Pilgrim decommissioned. While that doesn’t appear likely, they appeared to agree with NRC regulators on at least one important point: that at the very least, Pilgrim needs to vastly improve its safety performance record if it wants to reassure the hundreds of thousands of people living nearby.