WASHINGTON -- Over the objections of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Wednesday approved a restart of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, shut down since 1986 amid safety concerns in his state.
The NRC at the same meeting gave conditional approval to a low-power license for the troubled Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. The commission removed the last financial hurdle to the license by approving a plan from the facility's cash-strapped owners to set aside money for the dismantling of the plant if it could not win a full-power license after low-power testing.
The low-power license will not be issued until Seabrook owners come up with the $72.1 million needed for dismantling and until NRC license boards resolve disputes over emergency planning requirements for the plant site. The earliest the license could be granted would be Jan. 6, commission officials said.
Dukakis has fought against Seabrook by refusing to cooperate in emergency planning for the areas of his own state near the controversial plant. The Democratic presidential nominee therefore suffered a dual defeat Wednesday, losing in the New Hampshire matter as well as on the larger Pilgrim issue.
The NRC voted 5-0 to approve restart for Pilgrim, despite the warnings from Dukakis and local officials that the plant's emergency evacuation plans are inadequate to protect residents in the Plymouth area.
Dukakis, who vowed to sue the NRC if it granted the restart, called a news conference late in the day to discuss the action with Attorney General James Shannon. A Dukakis spokesman called the action 'irresponsible,' saying, 'It's clear to us and every local official in the area near the Plymouth plant that the evacuation planning is not finished and needs to be tested.'
In Washington, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called the NRC vote 'an insult' and said the commission 'again demonstrated its disregard for public safety.'
Pilgrim was shut down by its operator, Boston Edison Co., in April 1986 after intense criticism about sloppy safety and poor management. At the time, NRC officials rated Pilgrim one of the 10 worst-run nuclear plants nationwide.
Commission Chairman Lando Zech said Wednesday he believes that Boston Edison has corrected Pilgrim's problems and that emergency plans for five communities within its 10-mile emergency zone are adequate.
'I'm satisfied that management and technical problems that led to the 1986 shutdown have been adequately addressed,'Zech said. 'The plant is ready to resume safe operations.'
He noted, 'The decision we have to make is: Is it adequate to protect the public health and safety? We did conclude the public could be protected.'
Zech acknowledged the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government office specializing in evacuation issues, had not approved emergency plans for Pilgrim. However, he said the NRC, not the FEMA, has final authority to decide public safety issues at nuclear plants.
In its order, the commission required Pilgrim be brought on line gradually, from 5 percent to 25 percent to 50 percent to 75 percent and finally to full power. At each upgrade, the commission said it would review plant conditions.
On Seabrook, the NRC voted 5-0 to accept the plan by the Public Service Co. of New Hampshire detailing the finance for decommissioning after low-power operation.
The NRC had asked Public Service to submit such a plan after the utility declared bankruptcy this year. NRC rules say all nuclear operators must have enough money to ensure reactors can be safely mothballed and dismantled when their operating life is over.
The special plan was needed, according to the NRC, because of uncertainty about whether the utility can meet financial requirements for a full-power license. Public Service still faces questions from the NRC about its overall ability to operate Seabrook, which has been idle since its 1986 completion.
The NRC already has helped Public Service fight Dukakis and other opponents by changing NRC rules to let nuclear plant operators submit evacuation plans for nearby areas where state and local officials refuse to cooperate.
Public Service subsequently filed a plan for the Massachusetts communities near the plant in southeastern New Hampshire, and the FEMA gave conditional approval for that plan Tuesday.
Dukakis and others contend no workable plan can be designed for Seabrook because local roads would be inadequate to handle the crush of traffic that would occur in a mass evacuation.