Clinton joins Sanders in request to get NRC to discuss safety issues (Brattleboro Reformer)

By Bob Audette

BRATTLEBORO -- Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., added her name to a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that was crafted by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., criticizing the agency for hosting workshops earlier this month "to discuss technical issues and research topics for potential extended operation of the nation's nuclear power plants beyond 60 years."

Sanders and Clinton wrote it was premature to consider extending licenses past 60 years while many safety issues at those plants have yet to be resolved.

"With safety and public health concerns plaguing many of the nation's 104 aging nuclear power plants -- from collapsed cooling towers, to football-sized holes in vessel reactors, missed deadlines for emergency warning sirens and the release of radioactive materials into our rivers and groundwater -- it is irresponsible for your agencies to begin a process to consider the potential for license extensions beyond an already lengthy 60 years," wrote the pair.

The issue is of concern to Vermonters because Entergy, which owns and operates Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, is seeking a 20-year license extension from the NRC, from 2012 to 2032.

Last year, the NRC said it had found no environmentally significant reasons for not granting the extension. Last week it issued the safety evaluation review for Entergy's license renewal application which concluded all safety issues had been addressed.

This summer, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will be in Brattleboro to conduct evidentiary hearings related to metal fatigue and corrosion at the plant.

The NRC is expected to make its final decision on the license extension by the end of the year.

Entergy also has to prove to the state of Vermont it can guarantee safe, reliable energy through 2032 if it wants to continue producing power at the power plant.

Sanders and Clinton wrote that the February workshop hints at the idea that if Yankee does receive an extension, Entergy might be able to again apply for a renewal to run the plant past 2032.

Even though the NRC has said the original 40-year licensing term was based on economic and anti-trust issues, the pair wrote, "repeated safety incidents at nuclear power facilities underscore that structures and components of nuclear power plants were engineered for an expected 40-year service life and are now experiencing strain due to extended operations and boosted power output levels."

Not only are the aging mechanical systems of the plants an issue of concern, so is the competency of the NRC to confront those issues, they wrote.

Sanders and Clinton expressed concern that a recent report from the NRC's Office of the Inspector General criticizing the reviews of relicensing procedures wasn't being taken seriously by the NRC.

In addition to the OIG's report, a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office on NRC safety oversight concluded the NRC has been slow to act on its ability to identify and address safety concerns, they wrote.

"We believe that enough evidence exists to warrant a reexamination of the license renewal regulations and to restrict unlimited 20-year facility life extensions. Rather than hold workshops to initiate theoretical discussions of possible plant life extensions beyond 60 years, which would take place in 2020 at the earliest, we ask that you provide answers to the following questions regarding real safety problems at our nation's nuclear power plants."

Sanders and Clinton asked the NRC to tell them what actions it has taken in response to the GAO report and how it plans to audit the effectiveness of those responses, what has the NRC done in response to the OIG's report, why the NRC takes so long to address safety issues at some of the plants it regulates and why hasn't the NRC's aging-lessons-learned program identified problems at some of those plants?

Since 1998, the NRC has issued license renewal approvals to nearly 50 operating plants in the United States.

"Absent some unforeseen circumstances, it appears that within a handful of years, all 104 (commercial reactor sites) will either be allowed to continue to operate for 60 years or be in various stages of review," said former NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield, at the 2007 Regulatory Information Conference in Rockville, Md., where the NRC is headquartered. "Now that we have completed the 20-year license extension of almost half of our current fleet, I believe we need to begin the process of fully understanding what it would take to allow a further round of 20-year license extensions."