In the midst of a battle over extending the 40-year licenses of two nuclear plants near New York City, federal regulators are looking into whether such plants would be eligible for yet another extension.
That would mean the Indian Point plants and others around the county might still be running after reaching 60 years of age.
Bill Dean, a regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Wednesday the agency "is currently looking at research that might be needed to determine whether there could be extensions even beyond" the current 60-year limit for licenses.
He added, however, that there is no procedure in place yet for such an extension.
"That's ongoing research and my guess is it will be several years before we come to some determination," Dean said.
Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Indian Point owner Entergy Nuclear, said the company's focus "is on this 20-year license renewal and I'm not aware of consideration being given yet to beyond that."
Dean spoke at a news briefing on the 2011 performance of Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3 in Buchanan, about 35 miles from Manhattan. The plants again performed "within the expected regulatory bounds" and no special oversight is required, the NRC found.
Dean said the two plants underwent 11,000 hours of "inspection activities" last year.
The good grades from the NRC have not cut into the criticism of the plants or the fight to keep them from winning new licenses. The current licenses expire in 2013 and 2015, although the plants will be allowed to keep running if the licensing procedure goes past their expiration dates.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has opposed the new licenses, saying it's unsafe to have a nuclear plant in such a densely populated area. More than 17 million people live within 50 miles.
Environmental groups say the plants damage the Hudson River ecology by killing fish and warming the water. The state has so far withheld a necessary water-use permit that Indian Point will need to keep running. Entergy is appealing.
More than a dozen specific complaints, known as contentions, will be considered during relicensing hearings expected to start in October.
Several plants have already won new licenses: Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Ginna and Nine Mile Point 1 in New York, Dresden 2 and Dresden 3 in Illinois, Palisades in Michigan, Monticello in Minnesota, Point Beach 1 in Wisconsin and Robinson in South Carolina.
Their performance would be carefully considered in any applications for yet another extension, Dean said.
"For these plants that have now gone beyond 40 years ... obviously we're looking at those plants closely, as is the industry, in terms of assessing the ongoing performance of those plants as they get older," he said.
Dean said the plants' passive components, including the containment building, the reactor vessel and buried piping, would be the most important to monitor. Active components, he said, "get refurbished and changed out frequently" and so are less subject to aging.
He said the continual bombardment of the reactor vessel by neutrons creates "a certain amount of embrittlement." That has to be analyzed during every outage to see if it goes beyond predicted levels, he said.