Jaczko votes against Pilgrim plant license extension, suggests changes in relicensing process

Outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko in a letter dated May 21, 2012, voted against the relicensing of the single-unit, 688 MW Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts, a vote that was trumped by three of the remaining four commissioners on the five-person panel.

NRC staffers in April recommended the renewal of the license, which would allow Entergy (NYSE: ETR), owners and operators of the plant since July 1999, to operate the facility for an additional 20 years.  The current license for the Pilgrim station was set to expire on June 8, 2012. In a letter dated May 25, the commission voted to approve the staff’s recommendation to authorize the director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation to renew the license. Jaczko cast the only no vote, while Commissoners Svincki, Magwood and Ostendorff voted in favor of the license renewal. Commissioner Apostolakis did not participate.

Entergy Nuclear filed Pilgrim's license renewal application on Jan. 25, 2006. In a press release, Entergy said the renewed license will benefit the New England area, as will the plant’s existing 650 jobs and its $135 million in annual economic impact.

"NRC approval of Pilgrim's license renewal application was the culmination of extensive and rigorous review by the NRC,” said Robert Smith, Pilgrim's site vice president. “The NRC spent more than 20,000 hours conducting inspections and reviews.”

Jaczko, in his letter, suggested the other four commissioners delay their votes while litigation from opponents continues. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board continues to hear those appeals.

Jaczko said the process for resolving license renewals has been to allow the staff to move forward with a license renewal when board action was complete and the only matters pending were appeals of board decisions before the commission.

“That is simply not the case in this situation,” he wrote. “In fact, the Commission itself has referred several petitions to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Therefore, these matters are currently pending before the Board. This is an entirely new situation, one I never contemplated when I previously supported issuance of a renewed license while adjudicatory issues remained unresolved.”

The commission, in its May 25 statement, said the staff requested authorization to renew Pilgrim’s license although some contentions remain under adjudication before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Under NRC policy, a decision to renew a license before completion of the hearing requires commission approval.

In his letter, Jaczko suggested a new approach to license renewals for nuclear power plants.

“While I appreciate the need to have an appropriate procedure for bringing this process to completion, the current approach that my colleagues on the Commission support is unprecedented in license renewal proceedings and provides little basis for action,” Jaczko said.

Jaczko said the commission has referred petitions raising questions about the adequacy of the staff's review of the Pilgrim license renewal application to the Board. He said since it is the staff, rather than a participant in the hearing that seeks immediate issuance of the license renewal, it is implied that the action is not related to the ongoing administrative litigation.

“This hardly seems to be a fair process for the petitioners,” said Jaczko.

Jaczko said this process is sending a confusing message to the petitioners, in that by referring the petitioners to the board, the commission appears to believe the petitions present at least some merit. At the same time, he wrote, by approving the staff’s paper, the commission appears to be saying there are no remaining initial matters of significance to resolve before the issuance of the license.

"If the Commission were so comfortable that the issues raised in the motion to reopen were trivial, the Commission could have simply dismissed them itself without referral to the Board,” Jaczko said. “The Commission has ample authority to take the reins of this hearing and move the process to a reasonable decision point.”

John Herron, president, CEO and chief nuclear officer of Entergy Nuclear, said: "During the NRC's more than six years of review, people were afforded multiple chances to attend public meetings so regulators could get their input and hear their concerns. The public also had almost unlimited access to the NRC's record of its extensive inspections of the plant."

Jaczko suggested three ways in which the commission should do so. First, he said the commission should issue an order instructing that all final petitions seeking admission of new contentions be filed by a specified date. Secondly, the staff should file a motion with the commission expressing its interesting in issuing the license.

"The Commission should then entertain briefs and issue a decision articulating its reasons based on the adjudicatory record relevant to the issues pending before the Board," Jaczko said.

He continued by saying the commission order would make clear that subsequent motions filed would not be guaranteed to be reviewed.

“This process would be clear, transparent and fair to all parties in the proceeding and establish a process that would be applicable to future proceedings,” he said.

This same week, the Pilgrim station was awarded a Top Industry Practice award from the Nuclear Energy Institute. The award was for top practice in equipment reliability for a non-conductive torquing screw bit that eliminates half-SCRAMs. Entergy said while torquing terminal screws in an Analog Trip System cabinet, the metal screwdriver bit can inadvertently short-out the adjacent terminal screw, causing an unexpected half-SCRAM. Pilgrim employees designed, developed, machined in-house, tested and implemented a new screw bit. The non-conductive screw bit is also used for lifting and landing leads for surveillance testing, a common nuclear function. Entergy said with the new bit, Pilgrim has enhanced occupational safety and improved nuclear safety.

“This is a great addition to our tool chest,” said Bruno Giorgio, Pilgrim plant team lead and nuclear control technician. “This is another way we are making Entergy and our nuclear industry’s operations safer and more productive.”

The agency also said the renewal of the license would require Entergy to implement age-management policies and programs designed to ensure safety during the period of extended operations.

The Pilgrim plant, which generates about 10 percent of electricity in Massachusetts, can now operate until 2032.

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