From Worst to Best: How (and Why) Did Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant's Status Change?

Mar 7, 2019


Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is no longer one of the worst performing power plants in the country. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved the Plymouth-based plant from its Column 4 designation—which requires the most federal oversight— to Column 1, which would require the least amount of oversight.

WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Reporter Sarah Mizes-Tan about what this means for the plant, and for its impending shutdown in May. 



Eident: So as we know, Pilgrim has been considered one of the worst performing plants in the country for several years, placing it in the NRC column 4 category. Now we learn that Pilgrim has been elevated to Column 1. What does that mean?

Mizes-Tan: So, Column 4 basically means that Pilgrim had repeated safety violations and lacked what the NRC would qualify as sufficient safety protocols. Column 1 is the baseline category where most power plants are and are considered to be functioning at NRC standards.

Pilgrim was moved Column 1 because the Commission determined it met over 150 safety violations the NRC found at the site.

Eident: Is it common for a plant that's been hit with so many safety violations to go from four to one, I mean, is there a middle ground, like a two or three?

Mizes-Tan: Yeah. There are levels 2 and 3 but plants only move through the levels when they're violating protocols, not the other way around. So, short answer: Yes, it is pretty common for a plant to go from Column 4 to Column 1. In fact, it's never happened any other way. 

Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, said that after the number of inspections they've performed at the plant since it was placed in Column 4 four years ago, they felt that the plant has brought everything up to snuff to be considered normally functioning again. Therefore, the Column 1 designation.

Eident: What does that mean for oversight of the plant? I mean, we've reported on a lot of inspections over the last few years—does that mean fewer inspections?

Mizes-Tan: Yeah. This means in addition to inspections done by onsite inspectors, Pilgrim was getting inspections done by special teams that would look specifically into things like safety, culture, and security protocols back when it was a Column 4 plant. This amounted to about 11,300 hours of inspections a year. Now that they're in Column 1, they'll still receive the regular oversight which means the inspections will be mostly done by the onsite inspectors, but they'll be moving to more quarterly-based inspections, and in total, they'll be getting about half the number of inspection hours than they were getting previously.

Eident: So there was a lot of hours to start and we know the plant will be closing soon, I want to ask you about, that but first: Are there financial implications for this?

Mizes-Tan: Yeah. The NRC couldn't give me an estimate of exactly how much money Entergy will save by having less oversight. But, there will absolutely be thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars saved in the number of inspection hours that they have to pay for.

Eident: You mentioned that they went from 11,000 hours down to maybe quarterly, but we also know the plant is closing soon. So, what does that mean?

Mizes-Tan: Yeah. The plant is closing in May. But interestingly enough the plant's column designation actually won't have much of an effect on this according to the NRC. They say that there's an entirely different type of oversight that has to happen at a decommissioning plant anyways. And so, Column 4, Column 1 the NRC says the only reason that Entergy really wanted to get into this Column 1 designation was just to end on a high note.

Eident: End on a high note, and maybe help with its future decommissioning or its sale, perhaps?

Mizes-Tan: I was told that the plant does not gain any more value in its sale to Holtec if its Column 4 versus Column 1 since decommissioning is entirely different apparently than it's like regular operating budget. But, certainly there will be some money to be saved.

Eident:  And that is WCAI reporter Sarah Mizes-Tan. Thanks so much for coming in this morning and giving us a little bit more clarity on this recent news with Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant.

*This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.