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Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth gets another 20 years

After review, commission votes to renew license, even as safety questions linger

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth

Concluding the longest-ever review of a US nuclear power plant’s request for a new license, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Friday it had decided to allow the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth to produce energy for another 20 years.

The 3-1 vote, with one commissioner recusing himself because of a conflict, was called “troubling’’ by Governor Deval Patrick.

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It came a day after Gregory B. Jaczko, commission chairman, released his decision opposing the renewal of Pilgrim’s license. Jaczko, who announced his resignation this week after a tumultuous three-year term, urged fellow commissioners to wait for the resolution of remaining appeals by opponents of the license extension.

The other commissioners gave no explanation for their votes.

Pilgrim opponents have become more vocal since a massive earthquake and tsunami last year caused one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters at a similarly designed plant in Fukushima, Japan.

“The NRC’s decision to approve the renewal of Pilgrim’s operating license without addressing public and environmental safety issues is extremely troubling,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “I called for a complete and transparent evaluation of the outstanding concerns, because I believe it’s in the public’s best interest. Renewing the license before those concerns are alleviated is irresponsible and misguided.’’

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has raised safety concerns about the plant in recent years and previously called on the commission to suspend the Pilgrim license renewal review, said in a statement that her office would contest the decision.

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“We are disappointed this vote was taken without fully considering the safety concerns raised about storage of spent fuel at Pilgrim,’’ she said, referring to radioactive fuel rods like those that caught fire at the Japanese plant. “We intend to continue to raise our concerns through the court process and other appropriate channels.’’

In its announcement, the commission said its approval would take effect once the director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation makes “the appropriate findings on safety and environmental matters.’’

That office is expected to renew the license before it expires on June 8.

The commissioners who voted to renew Pilgrim’s license did not return calls for comment.

However, they noted the plant could continue operating if judges on the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board, a commission division that reviews and rules on complaints, set aside the license renewal pending the outcome of opponents’ appeals.

The pending cases have to do with concerns over harm to marine life from heated water being discharged into Cape Cod Bay, and what opponents see as insufficient safety measures taken after the Fukushima accident.

A commission spokesman said the decision follows an exhaustive review. “There was a tremendous amount of work that went into the review, and the commission felt that we’re now at the point where this decision could be made,’’ said Neil Sheehan. “This review went on 2,310 days, and the staff review took 14,600 hours. It represents a culmination of reviews since 2006.’’

Entergy Corp., the Louisiana company that has run the 40-year-old plant since 1999, has been the focus of protests and lawsuits since it sought to renew its license. In a statement, Entergy officials said the commission’s decision reflected on the safety record of the plant, which generates nearly 10 percent of the state’s electricity.

“The decision ensures Pilgrim’s generation of safe, clean, reliable and low-cost energy will continue to benefit the New England area, as will the plant’s existing 650 jobs and its $135 million in annual economic impact,’’ John Herron, president and chief nuclear officer of Entergy, said in a statement.

Pilgrim has operated largely without major safety problems, but does not have an unblemished record. In November, the commission required the plant to undergo a yearlong review of safety procedures, after multiple failures of the control room staff last spring sparked Pilgrim’s first emergency shutdown in years.

The commission found control room operators failed to follow appropriate procedures in May 2011 as they began manipulating the lead rods used to control the rate of the nuclear reaction. The plant went into emergency shutdown mode after the chain reaction in the nuclear core generated higher-than-expected power.

The plant’s violations were of “low to moderate safety significance,’’ a level of failure that occurs infrequently at the nation’s nuclear power plants. In 2010, the commission made nine such findings nationwide and only two others that were considered of greater safety concern.

Pilgrim opponents argue that Entergy cannot do enough to ensure safety, given what they view as the intrinsic danger of nuclear plants, especially one 35 miles from Boston and with nearly 5 million people living and working within a 50-mile radius.

They have argued that commissioners should not have renewed Pilgrim’s license, because of aging pipes beneath the plant that may leak radioactive liquids, problems with electrical cables that transmit power to and from the plant, and the lack of a sufficient cleanup plan in the event of a radiation leak.

“This final 3-1 commission vote yet again calls into question the commitment of the majority of the commission to ensuring the safety of America’s nuclear reactors,’’ said US Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat and a longtime critic of nuclear power. “It is outrageous that these three commissioners have made an end-run on a fair, transparent process and thumbed their collective noses at the public.’’

Another vocal critic of the plant, Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, argued that the commissioners’ vote reflects a lack of oversight.

“When the regulator does not follow its own rules, don’t expect that it will require the nuclear industry to do so either,’’ she said. “Fukushima showed what happens.’’

Commission officials said the initial 40-year term for operating licenses for nuclear plants was based on economic considerations and concerns about energy companies having monopolies, not technical or safety limitations.

“Nuclear power plants are not static facilities,’’ Sheehan said, explaining that operators constantly update equipment. “They have to be constantly maintained and periodically undergo significant upgrades that can include such major components as pumps, turbines, and transformers.’’

In 2009, the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey became the first plant to reach the 40-year mark, followed that year by reactors at the Nine Mile Point and Robert Emmett Ginna plants in New York and a reactor at the Dresden plant in Illinois.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never rejected a license renewal application of a nuclear plant. It has renewed the licenses of 72 of the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors, Sheehan said, starting with a Maryland plant in 2000.

In his dissenting decision, Jaczko called his colleagues’ votes unprecedented while appeals remain to be adjudicated.

In the past two months, he was the lone vote against renewing licenses for plants in South Carolina and Georgia, arguing that more needed to be done to maintain safety in the wake of Fukushima.

“This hardly seems to be a fair process,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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