Rock blunts scissor ~ the federal agency concludes the reactor is safe to operate for another 20 years
In the classic strategy game of rock, scissors, paper, as it has played out in the dispute over the relicensing of the 600 MW Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, the governor and the legislature have done everything possible to cut the future of the plant off at its knees. That’s scissors.
However, as things have turned out, the NRC’s sometimes ponderous proceedings have rolling along like a rock in a river proving that federal legal process has blunted the scissors of state political opposition.
While many in Vermont have genuine concerns about the reactor, Gov. Shumlin went much further in leveraging those concerns into his successful campaign to be elected governor last November.
The fat lady has finally sung. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has voted to renew the operating license for the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station near Brattleboro, Vt., for an additional 20 years. [NRC web page on Vermont Yankee license renewal]
Even more significantly, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who was widely criticized by the pro-nuclear community for the appearance of pandering to the anti-nuclear crowd in a controversial visit to the reactor last July, now stepped up to the plate to explain the NRC’s decision.
“ 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. (left)
“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.”
In a conference call with the news media, Jaczko said, "“We believe Entergy, through the exhaustive review that we’ve done for license renewal, meets all of our requirements and standards needed to be able to operate for another 20 years.”
Dispute moves to Vermont legislature
The Vermont legislature and the Governor Peter Shumlin are going to be very unhappy about the NRC’s action today. The plant needs a state certificate of "public good" to keep generating electricity. In 2010 the state Senate voted to prevent state utility agency from issuing one.
The governor made closing the reactor a center piece issue of his successful election campaign. Now they will have to contend with a classic legal confrontation of constitutional proportions.
As a matter of law, the state legislature doesn’t have the ability to over turn the NRC decision. However, in matters involving rates, state environmental and other regulatory issues, the governor can throw a spanner or two in the works. This story will develop as the legislature and the governor respond to the NRC’s action.
Anti-nuclear group irate and pressing forward
Kevin Kamp, a spokesman for 'Beyond Nuclear' told this blog the NRC has "relicensed a dinosaur."
"NRC is showing that no matter how old the reactor, no matter how dangerously degraded with age, no matter how badly leaking radioactivity into the surroundings, it will, in the end, rubberstamp these 20 year license extensions."
"And of course, the nuclear establishment in industry and government is now talking 80 years, not 60 years, of operations. They seem intent on running these dinosaurs till they break."
Groups opposed to the continued operation of Vermont Yankee plan to take their case to the state legislature March 22. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research will be testifying to the Vermont legislature on Monday, March 22nd.
His trip to Vermont is sponsored by Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, and co-sponsored by the Citizens Awareness Network, New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, Nuclear Free Vermont by 2012, Safe & Green Campaign, and the Sierra Club of the Upper Valley.
Pro-nuclear activists elated and relieved
On the other hand, Howard Shaffer and Meredith Angwin, two pro-nuclear activists, told this blog they are elated over the NRC decision. Angwin, who publishes the blog Yes Vermont Yankee said the NRC decision “vindicates the fact that the plant is safe.”
As recently as last week, Angwin was on the stump at the University of Vermont debating the future of the reactor with Arnie Gundersen, a special consultant hired by the legislature to provide technical information on the plant.
Angwin says she is still amazed by “Gundersen’s fish stories,” but said the news that the reactor has been relicensed is a strong vote for reason.”
See Angwin's breaking news report at Yes Vermont Yankee
Even Entergy (NYSE:ETR) has something to celebrate. The firm has made no bones about its offer to sell the reactor to anyone who wants to roll the dice with the Vermont legislature. The NRC decision might flush some takers out of the financial woodwork.
The license renewal process started five years ago
The decision to renew the license comes after the NRC staff’s thorough and extensive safety and environmental reviews of the application, submitted Jan. 27, 2006, by the plant’s operator, Entergy Nuclear Operations.
The application and the staff reviews were also examined by the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), an independent body of nuclear safety experts that advises the NRC, and was the subject of an adjudicatory hearing by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), a quasi-judicial arm of the NRC that handles licensing matters.
Key documents issued nearly three years ago
The NRC staff issued its Safety Evaluation Report (SER) on the Vermont Yankee license renewal application, NUREG-1907, in May 2008, and issued a supplement to the SER in September 2009.
The staff is in the process of issuing a second SER supplement, which will be available soon. The staff issued its Vermont Yankee-specific supplement to the generic license renewal Environmental Impact Statement (NUREG-1437, Supplement 30) in August 2007.
In September 2006 the ASLB accepted requests by the State of Vermont and the New England Coalition (NEC) for a hearing challenging the renewal of the Vermont Yankee license. Once the NRC technical staff concluded its review of the renewal application, the Board conducted its evidentiary hearing in Newfane, Vt., in July 2008.
New England coalition contentions denied
The Board issued its initial decision in November 2008, requiring Entergy to revise its metal fatigue analysis for two important nozzles. Entergy submitted its revised analyses in March 2009, and NEC challenged the adequacy of the new analysis. In July 2009 the Board denied NEC’s new challenge.
Meanwhile, the NRC staff and NEC appealed various aspects of the Board decisions. In July 2010 the Commission rejected all of the appeals except one, which was returned to the Board.
During consideration of that remaining issue, NEC requested that a new and different contention be admitted. In October 2010 the Board ruled on the remaining issue and rejected NEC’s new contention.
NEC appealed that ruling; the Commission's vote today affirms the Board’s denial of NEC’s new contention and concludes the hearing.
Vermont Yankee will be the 63rd reactor license renewed by the NRC. Twelve other applications are currently under review. Information about the license renewal process is available on the NRC website’s Reactor License Renewal page.
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