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* Vermont lawmakers could still force plant to shut
* Nuclear opponents challenged license due safety concerns (Adds details, background)
HOUSTON, March 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Thursday it will extend Entergy Corp's (ETR.N) license to operate its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vermont by another 20 years.
An anti-nuclear group had petitioned the NRC to deny a request by Entergy to renew its operating license, which expires on March 21, 2012. The five-member commission voted to deny the petition and will issue the license next week to allow the plant to operate until 2032, an NRC spokesman said.
However, the plant's fate is still uncertain.
Vermont is unique among the states in having the ability to decide on a renewal -- a right the state gained in approving Entergy's acquisition of the reactor.
The state's Senate in 2010 voted to shut the plant in 2012 due to pollution issues, though the full legislature has yet to vote on the issue. Without permission from Vermont, the plant would be forced to shut in 2012.
The New England Coalition had asked the NRC to deny Vermont Yankee's license extension, after Entergy last year discovered radioactive tritium leaking from an underground pipe at the reactor. The NRC denied that request.
"We'll continue to ensure Vermont Yankee is meeting the appropriate public health and safety standards regardless of the reactor's ultimate status," NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a statement.
The 605-megawatt plant entered service in 1972 with a 40-year operating license. Entergy is considering selling the plant, which Citigroup has valued at about $670 million (Reporting by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Walter Bagley)