* updated below *
Following through on its announcement less than two weeks ago, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission today officially issued a new, 20-year operating license to Entergy so it can keep Vermont Yankee running beyond March 2012.
The announcement on March 10 came one day before horrific events in Japan raised new questions about whether U.S. nuclear reactors could withstand multiple disasters.
Whether Entergy will keep the nearly 40-year-old plant open remains to be seen, given that to continue operation the company also needs a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board. Last year, the Vermont Senate — in a 26-4 vote — decided that keeping VY open beyond 2012 was not in the best interest of the state. As a result, the PSB has been unable to complete its review of Entergy's application before state regulators.
Today's NRC decision caps a review process that lasted more than five years.
Vermont's congressional delegation expressed its disappointment at the license renewal. The trio — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) — issued the following joint statement:
“It is hard to understand how the NRC could move forward with a license extension for Vermont Yankee at exactly the same time as a nuclear reactor of similar design is in partial meltdown in Japan. We believe that Entergy should respect and abide by Vermont’s laws and the MOU signed with the state in 2002, which require approval by the Vermont Legislature, and then the Vermont Public Service Board, for the plant to continue to operate beyond 2012.”
Last week Gov. Peter Shumlin reiterated his contention that Vermont Yankee shouldn't be relicensed — regardless of the events in Japan.
An NRC spokesman told Seven Days there was no reason to halt the VY application given the unfolding nuclear events in Japan.
"This application has been under review for more than five years, but the commission was clear that staff will continue to address matters related to VY's operation that had been underway before the events in Japan began," said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC's Region 1 division, which oversees Vermont Yankee.
Entergy officials were, obviously, pleased by the ruling. But, they are giving no indication as to whether they will fight the state of Vermont in court to remain open beyond March 2012. Even though they have a federal license to operate, it remains an open question whether they can legally keep the plant running beyond 2012 without a state license.
"Entergy is pleased that the NRC issued the extension of the operating license for Vermont Yankee through March 21, 2032, as announced on March 10," said Entergy VY spokesman Larry Smith. "Today's action comes after five years of careful and extensive review and confirms that Vermont Yankee is a safe, reliable source of electricity and capable of operating for another 20 years."
In recent days, Sen. Sanders has called on the NRC to issue a moratorium on issuing new licenses until a full review of U.S. nuclear reactors is undertaken.
Sheehan said the NRC is conducting a review. He also noted that U.S. reactors similar to those at Fukushima Diiachi have had modifications made to them that make it less likely they would build up explosive stores of hydrogen. Hardened vents have been added to those containment vessels.
Still, Sheehan said, the NRC will continue to evaluate events in Japan and determine if further modifications, system designs and backup plans need to be put in place at U.S. reactors.
Sheehan said federal regulators this morning agreed to undertake two separate reviews of the events in Japan to determine if any changes need to be made to U.S. nuclear reactors. The first report will be completed in 30 days; the second in 90 days. Sheehan said the NRC's oversight is an ongoing process, and not one that reacts only to one incident. "Not everything is going to come to a screeching halt because of these tragic events," he said.
* Update: Gov. Peter Shumlin reacts to license extension *
Shortly after this story was posted, the office of Gov. Peter Shumlin issued this statement:
“In light of the on-going crisis at the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan that has prompted other states and nations to review their nuclear power issues, today's decision by the NRC to issue an extension of Vermont Yankee's license is puzzling. Fortunately, Vermont has taken steps to close down the aging Yankee plant, and I have urged other states with older nuclear facilities to follow our example and take control of the lifespan of their plants.”