Activists challenge license extension for Peach Bottom nuclear plant

Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station

An anti-nuclear watchdog  aims to challenge Exelon Generation's bid to extend the operating license at its Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station through 2054.

The group's request for a hearing will not be approved unless the U.S. Atomic Safety and Licensing Board deems its arguments admissible at a preliminary hearing March 27. 

Exelon's application to extend its 60-year operating license an additional 20 years is among the first in the country, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan.

The anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear contends that Exelon did not meet NRC standards for renewal because it did not provide evidence of studying its aging equipment.

"Exelon could be gathering evidence from closed stations to harvest materials to look at things like how weld material has fared under 49 years of similar operation," said Paul Gunter, director of the reactor oversight project at Beyond Nuclear. 

If approved, Exelon's proposal could extend the life of Peach Bottom's Unit 3 through 2053 and Unit 4 through 2054. 

The proposed extension at Peach Bottom comes as Exelon bids for support in the General Assembly for legislation that would benefit its nuclear facilities in Pennsylvania,  including Dauphin County facility Three Mile Island, which the firm has said it will close without state support.

Opponents of the legislation — which has yet to roll out in Harrisburg — have already labeled it a "bailout."

It's unknown how aging equipment at Peach Bottom would fare with such a long service life, Gunter said. 

Most nuclear plants in the U.S. have received initial renewals extending their licenses from 40 to 60 years, said Sheehan, but a request for a second renewal is rare.

Only three plants — including Peach Bottom — are seeking their second license extension, this time from 60 years to 80. 

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Officials from Exelon did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. But both the NRC and Exelon filed responses to the group's petition request, saying the listed contentions did not meet admissibility standards.

Sheehan said the commission responded the way it did not because it believes the plant has provided evidence of meeting its standards, but because the application is still under review.

NRC staff undertakes an initial review to approve the application followed by a more in-depth review process, looking at safety and environmental factors, which is where they are now for Peach Bottom, he said.

But Gunter said it's important to have assurances of safety knowledge on the application itself — arguing that moving forward with the review process represents a commitment to renewal.

The group is looking for Exelon's application to demonstrate it has "sufficient" knowledge — not just a little — on the issues that could affect aging equipment. 

Exelon's decommissioned Oyster Creek plant has the same boiling-water reactor as Peach Bottom, so there are opportunities to do extensive destructive analysis on larger equipment that wouldn't be possible at Peach Bottom, Gunter said.

"A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous, particularly when talking about an inherently dangerous technology," Gunter said.

The 20-month review process, which is scheduled to wrap up next March, would run concurrently with the hearing — if Beyond Nuclear's arguments are deemed admissible.

Staff would not be precluded from issuing a decision on the license at that point, but results from the hearing could affect the outcome retroactively.

If any of the parties involved are not satisfied, Sheehan said, they can file an appeal with the NRC's governing commission, and beyond that, it would go to federal court.

Sheehan said no commitments to renewal are made until the end of the review process.

However, he added that costs and timing are key considerations in deciding on whether or not to do an autopsy of a decommissioned plant for additional research.

The Electric Power Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy and other organizations have provided the bulk of the funding in the past, and the NRC currently has no plans for harvesting decommissioned plants for future study.

The NRC is pursuing the development of a database for harvesting — which could include previously harvested materials and those available for future harvesting, he said.