MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – The staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff on Monday gave its blessing to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant’s request to extend its license for 20 years beyond its currently scheduled 2012 expiration date.

In a safety evaluation report, the regulators said the plant’s operators had satisfied the requirements of federal law.

That leaves two more major steps before the approval is granted: a review by the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, which holds a hearing next month; and a hearing next summer by a quasi-judicial panel affiliated with the federal agency on an anti-nuclear group’s concerns about extending the license.

The NRC staff approval comes two years and a month after Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Nuclear applied to extend the license for the reactor.

Located on the Connecticut River in Vermont’s southeast corner, Vermont Yankee opened in 1972 and its original, 40-year license is set to expire March 31, 2012.

Vermont Yankee spokesman Robert Williams couldn’t be reached for comment on the approval Monday evening. He did not immediately return a message.

Raymond Shadis, technical adviser to the nuclear watchdog group New England Coalition, said the July hearing before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board would focus on three concerns – formally known as “contentions” – raised by his group.

He said the group would introduce evidence concerning cracks in Vermont Yankee’s steam dryer, a large metal shroud over the reactor that reduces the water content in steam before it is sent from the reactor to the plant’s turbine.

Shadis said the other two contentions have to do with the aging of metal in plant components – one focusing on the reactor itself and the other on piping and nozzles bringing water to the reactor.

The NRC has approved dozens of license extensions at plants around the country and, while it has often asked for more documentation from plant owners, it has never rejected such a request outright.But even if the plant gets its expected approval from NRC headquarters in suburban Washington, the plant still faces a hurdle in Montpelier.

Its continued operation would require a state permit – or certificate of public good, which is issued by the quasi-judicial Public Service Board.

Under state law, Vermont lawmakers have the authority to say whether the board should even consider issuing such a permit. That vote is expected during next year’s legislative session.

This year, lawmakers are considering whether Vermont Yankee should have an independent review before being allowed to renew its license. That idea was first pushed by anti-nuclear activists recalling that an independent safety assessment helped lead to the shutdown of the Maine Yankee plant in the 1990s.

The Douglas administration at first opposed the idea, but in recent months – particularly since the collapse of a cooling tower at Vermont Yankee in August – has joined the call for an independent review. Lawmakers now are debating just what shape such a review should take.

AP-ES-02-25-08 1817EST

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