Safety eyed as nuclear plant sends half its workers home

The decision by officials at the embattled Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant to send home nearly half of its workers while the two sides trade jabs at the negotiating table could open the plant to major issues, according to a nat- ional nuclear expert who said, given an accident, the interim workers in place are “more likely to come up short.”

“These people are not as well trained and practiced” as the regular workers, said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project.

Hours after their contract expired at a midnight deadline, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., which runs the Plymouth plant, and members of Utility Workers Union of America Local 369 failed to hash out a new contract. That sent dozens of workers to the picket line outside the plant, where union leadership said “nonessential” employees were “locked out.” Entergy officials, in explaining that “critical” workers remained, said all those sent home were given a paid day off.

“It’s a nuclear facility, so I’d think that everyone in there is an essential person,” said union president Dan Hurley, who represents 380 workers fighting an increase in health-care costs, one of the major sticking points in talks.

The breakdown comes as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers granting the 40-year-old plant a 20-year renewal license, a process that has drawn criticism from across the state, including Gov. Deval Patrick.

The plant’s current license expires June 8. In the interim, an NRC spokeswoman said it approves of the plant’s “contingency plans,” but state Rep. Jim Cantwell, a vocal advocate of beefing up power plant protections, said that gives him little relief.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office also weighed in, urging both sides to reach an agreement “as soon as possible.”

State Senate President Therese Murray said she is “extremely disturbed that some workers were locked out” and questioned the safety of the move.

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