BRATTLEBORO -- The length of time the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been reviewing the relicensing application for Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon has set a new record.
And since a leak of tritiated water was discovered at the plant on Jan. 6, it could take even longer for the NRC to reach its conclusion on whether the plant should be allowed to operate for another 20 years past its original license expiration date of 2012.
"We have no prediction when it might be issued," said Darrell Roberts, deputy director of the NRC's Region 1, during a tritium workshop presented to the public on April 19.
The NRC's normal schedule calls for a relicensing application to be completely reviewed in 22 to 30 months. It has approved new licenses for 50 of the nation's 104 reactors, according to the NRC Web site.
Entergy, which owns and operates Yankee, delivered the relicensing application to the NRC in January 2006. For the past 52 months, the NRC has been reviewing the application, and has 23 more months to make its decision.
Prior to Yankee, Oyster Creek's application was in the system the longest. Oyster Creek is located in New Jersey and is operated by Exelon. It came online in 1969 and is the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the United States.
It took the NRC 45 months to review and approve Oyster Creek's relicensing application.
The biggest reason the NRC's decision has been delayed is because of a contention filed by the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, which alleges Yankee's plan to manage aging systems, components and pipes during the period of extended operation is inadequate and based on faulty mathematical formulas.
The NRC's commission, a five-member panel appointed by the president, is currently reviewing NEC's appeal of a decision made by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which recommended that Entergy receive license renewal once it has proved reactor nozzles could withstand the additional wear and tear and that it put in place an aging management plan related to metal fatigue.
In its contention, NEC relied on experts who are "avowedly pro-nuclear," said Ray Shadis, NEC's technical consultant.
"Based on their evaluation of the evidence they concluded that license renewal is unsound and unsafe" he said.
In its appeal to the commissioners "We contended that the ASLB judges did not know enough science to judge the matter, that they exhibited bias against NEC witnesses and relied on unsupported statements from Entergy witnesses," said Shadis.
When the leak was discovered, he said, NEC asked the commissioners to consider whether Entergy properly presented an aging management program for buried piping in its license renewal application and in filings supporting that application.
"The process is not done," said David Pelton, the NRC's chief of aging management of plant systems branch, who was a resident inspector at Yankee for five years. "There will no renewal until we conclude the aging management plan suits the lesson they have learned."
Another reason the Yankee decision could be delayed a little longer, said Roberts, is because Entergy will have to submit an updated survey of the hydrology and geology beneath the plant.
The original map submitted in the license renewal package was created prior to the plant's construction. A new one wasn't created for the renewal application because the plant "didn't have the leak then," said Roberts.
With the new knowledge, a new map will be added to the plant's environmental impact statement, said Jim Noggle, Region I's senior health physicist.
"Anytime things significantly change they are required to update it," he said.
The environmental impact statement was issued in August of 2007.
In addition, the NRC will review the tritium leak in the context of the final safety analysis report that was issued in March of 2007. The tritium leak report will become part of the FSAR, said Roberts.
At the time the safety analysis and the environmental impact statement were released, the NRC concluded there were no safety or environmental reasons that would keep it from issuing a license renewal.
But the tritium leak doesn't mean the NRC has changed the conclusion reached in the two reports, said Roberts.
"The assumptions we made have not been invalidated by this issue," he said.
Under NRC regulations, if a power plant operator has submitted its application at least five years in advance of its license termination date and no decision has been made when its actual license ends, the plant can continue to operate until a decision has been made.
But whether Yankee will be allowed to operate past 2012 if no decision has been made by the NRC, said Roberts, is new territory for the agency because "Vermont is unique."
When Entergy bought the plant in 2002, it and Vermont reached an agreement that gives the state the right to deny the plant's continued operation.
"We have no bearing on that process," he said, as long as the state's decision doesn't infringe on the NRC's purview of safety and environmental issues. The state can only rule on the plant's reliability and if its continued operation is in the best interests of Vermonters.
Earlier this year, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 against the plant's continued operation. The Vermont Public Service Board is holding hearings on whether the plant should receive a certificate of public good, which is required for another 20 years of operating life.
The PSB's review is on hold pending an investigation into whether Yankee representatives knowingly gave false testimony to state agencies in hearings last year.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.