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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

NRC to grant Vermont Yankee 20-year license extension, but fallout from Vermont’s denial of CPG still possible

BRATTLEBORO—By a 4-0 vote, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant a 20-year license renewal.

“This is the final step in the NRC’s detailed technical and legal process of examining whether it’s appropriate to issue a renewed license,” said NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko in a press release on Thursday.

Jaczko said that Vermont Yankee’s daily operations meet the NRC’s high standards. He said the commission issued the license based on the safety and technical reviews within its authority.

Hinting at the Vermont Senate’s 2010 blocking of Vermont Yankee’s Certificate of Public Good, Jaczko said, “Since there are other approval processes outside the NRC, we’ll continue to ensure Vermont Yankee is meeting the appropriate public health and safety standards regardless of the reactor’s ultimate status.”

Vermont requires legislative approval before the state Public Service Board can issue a nuclear plant a Certificate of Public Good, a fact that Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin reiterated on Thursday.

“[Thursday’s] vote from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not unexpected and does not change the fact that Vermont Yankee still needs approval from the state to continue operating beyond its 2012 license expiration,” Shumlin said in a press statement.

“I am pleased that the NRC is reaffirming Vermont’s authority to determine the plant’s future. Given the serious radioactive tritium leaks and the recent tritium test results, the source of which has yet to be determined, and other almost weekly problems occurring at this facility, I remain convinced that it is not in the public good for the plant to remain open beyond its scheduled closing in 2012.”

Vermont’s Congressional delegation agreed.

U.S. Representative Peter Welch and Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders issued a joint statement Thursday, saying that “it should surprise no one that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has voted to extend Vermont Yankee’s license for another 20 years.”

The NRC “has never denied a nuclear plant an extension and, in fact, has granted 62 straight license extensions,” the federal lawmakers continued. “We believe that Entergy should respect and abide by Vermont’s laws, which require approval from the Vermont Legislature, and then the Vermont Public Service Board, for the plant to continue to operate beyond 2012.”

Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said that the company is “are pleased with the NRC’s action.”

“It confirms that Vermont Yankee is a safe and reliable nuclear plant, and that the plant meets all the requirements to operate safely for another 20 years,” Smith said.

Smith declined further comment.

During a media conference call on Thursday afternoon, Jaczko and NRC Director of Public Affairs Eliot Brenner confirmed that, in a unanimous 4-0 vote, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) agreed with the NRC that Vermont Yankee deserved the license extension.

The ACRS, mandated by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, “advise[s] the Commission with regard to the hazards of proposed or existing reactor facilities and the adequacy of proposed reactor safety standards, and shall perform such other duties as the Commission may request,” according to the federal statute..

According to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan, Commissioner George Apostolakis recused himself from the five-member board’s vote because of his prior service on the ACRS. The ACRS recommended renewal of the Vermont Yankee license some time ago.

Jaczko said that Vermont Yankee is safe and that the NRC believes that Entergy “meets all requirements and standards to operate for another 20 years.”

He said the NRC has inspectors at Vermont Yankee who monitor the plant daily. The commission would take “appropriate action” if it had safety concerns.

Jaczko said Vermont Yankee’s license process followed a normal track. The commission did not feel pressured to push through the application in response to a strong public outcry in Vermont.

Entergy submitted its license renewal application on Jan. 27, 2006.

Regarding the NRC’s previous concern in an inspection report last year about the underwater electrical cables at the plant site in Vernon, Jaczko said that submerged cables at all U.S. nuclear plants are the commission’s focus right now.

Brenner also announced that Annette L. Vietti-Cook, secretary of the commission, denied the New England Coalition’s motion, filed earlier in the day, to stay the NRC’s verdict on Entergy’s license application.

“NEC’s motion constitutes, in essence, a motion to reopen the record and a request to submit new or amended contentions — yet it addresses none of the regulatory criteria for either request,” Vietti-Cook wrote in response to what she termed as the New England Coalition’s “pleading-styled” and “procedurally defective” attempt to put the brakes on the process.

The license application was also the subject of an adjudicatory hearing by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) in 2008.

The ASLB rejected the NEC’s contentions. The NEC attempted to reopen the hearing with new evidence, including concern about the safety of the underwater cables, a motion that the ASLB denied in October.

The NEC appealed to the NRC commissioners, who denied that appeal last week.

“We likewise frown on intervenors seeking to introduce a new contention later than the deadline established by our regulations, and we accordingly hold them to a higher standard for the admission of such contentions,” the commissioners wrote.

The NRC staff issued its Safety Evaluation Report (SER) on Vermont Yankee’s renewal application in May 2008, and a supplement to the report in September 2009.

The staff is in the process of issuing a second SER supplement, which will be available soon, according to the press release.

Entergy has maintained that only the NRC can approve or deny the plant’s operating license. The company has hinted that it could take the state to court over the Senate’s vote to block the state Public Service Board from considering or issuing Vermont Yankee’s Certificate of Public Good.

Jaczko said that the matter is between Entergy and Vermont.

It’s unlikely that the NRC would involve itself in a court case. The commission has a “high threshold” for the issues, like radiological safety, he said.

“I’m worried about nuclear safety. I’m not worried about courts,” he said.

Sheehan estimated that the license would be sent to Entergy later this week.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #92 (Wednesday, March 16, 2011).

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