NRC rejects AG’s request to delay Pilgrim plant’s license renewal

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today rejected a request by state Attorney General Martha Coakley that it suspend a review of whether the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth should have its operating license renewed for another 20 years, in the aftermath of the Japan nuclear crisis.

Coakley, who has raised safety concerns in recent years about the on-site storage of still-radioactive spent fuel rods, made the request after the radiation leak from a spent fuel storage pool at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in March. She argued the disaster in Japan underscored the need for more review of the fuel pools at US reactors.

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The Pilgrim plant, which has the same basic design as the Fukushima facility, has sought permission to operate after its license expires next year.

In its 66-page response, the federal commission denied the state’s request that it suspend hearings about the renewal of the plant’s license, revise its rules, and provide relief to the state. The commission, however, noted that it has a task force already conducting a “safety analysis of the regulatory implications’’ of the Japan disaster.

“The NRC continues to carefully evaluate changes to US nuclear power plants in response to the events at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors,’’ said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “These issues are receiving attention at the highest levels of the NRC. Going forward, we will continue to engage our stakeholders, including the states and watchdog organizations, on ways to ensure US reactors remain safe and learn from the lessons of Japan.’’

Carol Wightman, a spokeswoman for the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, declined to comment until she had a chance to read the commission’s decision.

Officials in the attorney general’s office said Coakley hopes the NRC board considering renewing the plant’s license will weigh the concerns she has raised.

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“We continue to believe these important issues should be addressed by the NRC before relicensing occurs,’’ said Brad Puffer, a spokesman for Coakley. “We are pleased that the NRC has indicated it will address our concerns around spent fuel pools in the Pilgrim relicensing proceeding.’’

Earlier this month, the commission issued a report finding that multiple failures of the control room staff at Pilgrim last spring sparked the power plant’s first emergency shutdown in years, and that the problems were likely serious enough to warrant a rigorous year-long review of the plant’s safety procedures.

The report blamed Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based company that has run the 39-year-old plant since 1999.

Local critics of nuclear power, who also requested that the commission halt its review of Pilgrim’s license renewal, said they were not surprised by the decision.

Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, a Duxbury group that opposes the plant’s relicensing, said she hopes the commission will consider their concerns in the final review of the plant’s license.

“After Three Mile Island, there was a decision to suspend all licensing for well over a year, until they had a firmer understanding of the causes of that accident and what regulations they had to put into place to reduce the risk that it would ever happen again,’’ she said, referring to the nuclear accident at a Pennsylvania reactor in 1979. “Given that Fukushima is the exact same design as Pilgrim and Yankee, it’s important that these issues be addressed immediately. That’s why we and the attorney general have brought forth our concerns.’’

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