Massachusetts' only nuclear power plant wants permission to operate another 20 years, but as a decision nears, some high ranking officials say a record-long federal review of the request spanning more than six years hasn't been long enough.
The operating license for Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth expires June 8, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to decide whether to renew the plant's license through 2032 any day now, although top Massachusetts officials have asked the commission to extend its deliberations.
Last month, Attorney General Martha Coakley appealed the NRC's decision to hold hearings on the relicensing, citing what she said were unaddressed safety concerns raised by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant accident in Japan last year.
On Friday, U.S. Reps. Edward Markey and William Keating warned NRC chairman Greg Jaczko that the commission would send "an alarming message" to people living near nuclear plants if they acted before pending issues are resolved.
And on Monday, Gov. Deval Patrick asked the NRC to take more time, citing "a number of serious concerns that have been raised regarding public safety, public health and the environment."
The NRC staff has already recommended the commission approve Pilgrim's license, and a public commission vote is expected soon.
"We do believe that the plant is being operated safely, we believe that it has the appropriate level of security, and the staff believes that the review that has been conducted shows that the plant can operate safely for an additional 20 years," said NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci.
Anti-Pilgrim activist Mary Lampert believes Pilgrim's license will inevitably be renewed. But she said her group, Pilgrim Watch, is fighting for increased public awareness about Pilgrim's risks.
"I would hope that it would be closed," said Lampert of Duxbury. "In the interim, you have to work for safer operations to reduce risks."
Pilgrim filed its renewal application on time, so it can continue to operate even if the NRC doesn't relicense it by June 8.
The plant was built in 1972 and purchased in 1999 by its current owner, Entergy. The 680-megawatt plant provides electricity to about 680,000 homes, said Carol Wightman, an Entergy spokeswoman.
Entergy applied for Pilgrim's license renewal in January 2006, but various hearings have made the pending review the longest in NRC history by 13 months and counting, Screnci said.
Opponents have attacked the relicensing from several angles. Markey says the unresolved issues include the NRC's failure to determine how the plant's relicensing would affect Atlantic sturgeon and river herring, which swim nearby and are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Markey and Coakley say the NRC also isn't fully considering lessons from the Fukushima nuclear accident. For instance, they point to Pilgrim's storage of spent fuel rods in pools of water, rather than encased in dry casks. The same storage method was used at Fukushima, and the rods caught fire.
"With Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station utilizing the same design as the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, it is plain common sense to implement appropriate safety measures before approvals are granted," Markey said.
Lampert says security at the plant is subpar, making it vulnerable to terror attack. She adds that the 40-year-old plant is old and deteriorating.
On Monday, voters in Brewster became the latest to pass anti-Pilgrim resolutions, asking state lawmakers to block the plant's relicensing. But such opinions aren't universal, said Entergy's Wightman, adding that Pilgrim enjoys significant support in a community where it employs about 650 people and paid $10.5 million in taxes during the last fiscal year.
She said Entergy has spent millions in upgrades and runs an aggressive preventative maintenance program.
The NRC is reviewing lessons from the Fukujima accident, and Pilgrim is following its lead to make needed changes, Wightman said.
She added the plant's security is robust and monitored constantly by the NRC's ongoing inspection program.
"We maintain Pilgrim is safe," she said. "We've been running it safely for 40 years."