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Nuclear regulators urged to revamp licensing oversight

State officials call audit 'disturbing'

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / February 19, 2008

Top state officials, pointing to what they say is a troubling internal audit, are urging federal nuclear plant regulators to revamp their oversight of the licensing process before moving ahead with several pending renewals, including one at a Plymouth plant.

Officials in the administration of Governor Deval Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley said they are concerned about shortcomings in the process identified in a report released last September by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own inspector general's office.

Among the plants seeking renewals are the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth and the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, just over the border in Vernon, Vt.

The audit said that in many cases NRC staff members charged with reviewing license application renewals "did not describe any review methodology for operating experience or provide any specific support for the staff's conclusions" that the plants were safe to continue operating.

The audit also said it was often hard to distinguish between the language used by inspectors from the language used in the license application from the plants' owners.

"A reader could conclude that they were reading NRC's independent analysis and conclusions when, in fact, it was the licensee's conclusions," the audit said.

In a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state Energy and Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles and Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke called on the agency to revamp its license renewal process before considering new renewal applications - including those from the Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee power plants.

"Given the importance of the safety review associated with nuclear plant relicensing, these conclusions [in the audit] are disturbing, to say the least," the two wrote.

James Milkey, who heads up Coakley's environmental protection division, raised similar concerns.

"The report states that relicensing decisions fail to document that NRC staff is providing the intensive, independent review of industry submittals that the public both expects and relies upon for its protection," Milkey wrote.

NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci said yesterday that the audit mainly noted problems in how its relicensing process was documented, not in the process itself, which she called "rigorous."

She said the agency is working to address problems noted in the audit and will consider the letters from the state, but has not put any of the license renewals on hold.

Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Corp., which owns Pilgrim, said the call to revamp the licensing process "may be an overreaction to an audit that suggested appropriate measures for improving the process."

The Pilgrim power plant's existing license is due to expire in 2012. Entergy has applied for a 20-year renewal, which the NRC is considering.

Environmental groups and officials from across the Northeast have filed a formal request for a moratorium on the agency's review of requests for 20-year license extensions by the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, and the Pilgrim plant and Vermont Yankee plants.

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