A federal appeals court has affirmed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s relicensing of a Massachusetts nuclear power plant over the state’s claim that the agency failed to consider lessons from the Fukushima, Japan, radiological accident.
On February 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit denied an appeal brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley of the commission’s 20-year license extension for the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass in May 2012.
The court also denied Coakley’s petition for review of the commission’s order not to reopen the Pilgrim licensing process to weigh the environmental impacts of relicensing in light of what the industry learned from the March 2011 Fukushima incident.
The December 2012 oral arguments concerned the state’s June 2011 bid to reopen the Pilgrim record. The state sought a new review of the plant under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Atomic Energy Act.
Intervenors Entergy Nuclear Operations Inc. and Entergy Nuclear Generation Co., which is licensed to run the plant, also participated in oral argument. Entergy argued that environmental regulations don’t require reopening Pilgrim’s licensing process.
Chief Judge Sandra Lynch wrote the opinion in Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Judge Juan Torruella and Senior Judge Joseph DiClerico Jr. of the District of New Hampshire, who sat by designation, joined her.
Lynch wrote ,"The record shows that the [commission] gave a hard look to the information Massachusetts presented to it, and it engaged in reasoned decision making in explaining why it refused to reopen the record and why it denied the contention. The [commission] did not need to wait to grant the relicensing based on conjecture that additional information might arise in the future. Indeed, the [commission] gave assurances that if such information did arise, and resulted in new requirements, those requirements would, under its normal procedures, be applied to Pilgrim."
She concluded that the commission appropriately considered Pilgrim’s spent fuel storage pool issues and its plan for possible events involving core damage—damage to the part of the reactor with the fuel used to create heat to make electricity.
She also noted that if the commission issues more stringent licensing standards in the future and does not apply them to Pilgrim, then Massachusetts "can request that the [commission] initiate proceedings to determine whether the Pilgrim plant license would have been granted under the new criteria."
Coakley issued a statement, which noted that her office is considering its options: "Nuclear energy, when done right, can be a valuable part of our energy future. Our goal throughout this process has been to minimize the public safety and environmental risks for the communities surrounding the Pilgrim plant."
Matthew Brock, an assistant attorney general in the environmental protection division of the AG’s office, argued for the state.
In an emailed statement, commission spokesman David McIntyre said the agency is "gratified that the court agreed with us on virtually everything we argued, and endorsed the view that the commission gave a ‘hard look,’ as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, at everything we were required to consider. The Court also noted that the plant will be required to comply with future [commission] directives resulting from our review of the events at Fukushima."
Commission attorney James Adler argued for the agency and the U.S. government.
Entergy’s lawyer, Kevin Martin, a partner at Boston’s Goodwin Procter, referred questions to the company. In an email, Entergy spokesman Jim Sinclair said the company is pleased by the decision and the court’s assessment that the agency took a hard look at the Massachusetts petition.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.