“Westchester County is taking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to federal court, saying its relicensing guidelines for nuclear power plants are inadequate.

For the last three years County Executive Andrew Spano has argued that the NRC criteria for relicensing the 40-year-old Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant fails to protect the public. The county will make that argument in court on Friday.

In a statement released Tuesday Spano said the NRC should use the same criteria for Indian Point that is used to license a new plant.

“In this day and age – and with all the problems Indian Point has had – it is not right to grant a relicense just because it met standards three decades ago,” Spano said. “The health and safety of Westchester residents will only be protected if the NRC is forced to use the broadest criteria possible.”

Entergy, owner of Indian Point, applied for a new license in April, 2007 for reactor units 2 and 3. The licenses expire in 2013 and 2015. A new operating license would extend the plants operation for an additional 20 years.

Westchester County filed a petition to change the relicensing criteria of the NRC in May 2005. The NRC denied the petition in December 2006 and the county filed an appeal in February 2007. The appeal argues that if a new nuclear power reactor were to be built today, it would never be on the Indian Point site.

“If you want to put a new nuclear plant in Westchester County today, federal regulators would have to look at a number factors: population density, emergency escape routes, plant design, and safety and environmental concerns,” Spano said.

This isn’t the first time the NRC has been challenged on relicensing criteria said NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan.

“In recent years there have been several lawsuits challenging our regulations for license renewal,” he said. “What the federal courts have told the government entities [making the appeal] is that they need to exhaust their remedies with the NRC before they can challenge any of the regulations in federal court.”

The current re-licensing guidelines for nuclear power plants in the Untied States look at the working components and how they are managed in an aging plant. The NRC doesn’t consider local demographics or emergency evacuation plans in the relicensing criteria.

Entergy spokesperson Jim Steets said that the criteria for relicensing have changed since Indian Point was first built in the 1970s.

“The standards have been raised since the plants were first licensed and we’ve had to comply with those standards,” he said. “With respect to emergency planning, the standards have always been the same. We have bi-annual exercises and we maintain a program reviewed by the county, FEMA and the NRC.”

Spano has consistently said that if this were Indian Point’s first license, it would be rejected due to population density and congested road network that would hinder any evacuation plan in a fast-breaking scenario such as in a terrorist attack.

But Steets said Entergy finds the county’s move to change the relicensing guidelines without merit.

“Their appeal to the NRC was and has remained baseless,” he said. “It’s also a waste of the taxpayer’s money.”

Michael Kaplowitz (D-I, Somers) said he hasn’t heard his constituency complain about the cost of the county’s appeal.

“I think people realize the overriding issue here is safety,” Kaplowitz said. “Besides, the county has already paid for the legal work so they might as well see it through.”

Westchester County is represented in the proceedings by the national law firm Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. But County Legislator George Oros (R -Peekskill) contends the move is a waste of money and was only done for publicity.

“It seems as though this is an attempt made for the sake of a PR campaign,” he said. “It’s typical of this administration and always has been.”

Oros also questioned the timing of Spano’s announcement.

“Yesterday our board of legislators unanimously passed a resolution setting a goal to reduce carbon emissions and green house gases,” he said. “At the same time we have people in county government calling for the closure of a plant that probably provides the cleanest energy you can get.”

The federal law governing the NRC is the Atomic Energy Act and any changes in the relicensing criteria would have to be voted on in Congress.

“The Atomic Energy Act, as it is currently written, supports the NRC’s position,” said Kaplowitz. “Any changes to the law would take a new Congress, new laws and a new president to sign it. I don’t think the courts will overrule the NRC.”

Others who have joined Westchester’s appeal are New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Connecticut attorney general, the New Jersey Environmental Federation and the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The NRC holds that the relicensing criteria have stood up over time. “We’ve been very consistent on this,” said Sheehan. “The regulations that were developed in the 1990s took years to develop and involved a lot of public input. We look at what’s most crucial to maintain and monitor a plant including potential environmental impacts.””

This article originally appeared in the North County News