* Hearings to start Oct. 15, extend into December
* Entergy wants plant to run for another 20 years
* New York Governor Cuomo opposes license renewal
By Scott DiSavino
Oct 1 (Reuters) - A three-judge panel of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will start hearings Oct. 15 on challenges to the license renewal application for Entergy Corp's Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City.
Entergy, one of the biggest U.S. nuclear power operators, wants to keep the two reactors at Indian Point running for another 20 years after their licenses expire in 2013 and 2015.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo opposes license renewal, largely because of the plant's location near a metropolitan area that is home to 19 million people. An accident at the plant - no matter how unlikely - could be disastrous, according to Cuomo.
The 2,062-megawatt Indian Point plant is located in Buchanan in Westchester County, about 40 miles (64 km) north of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It provides about a quarter of the power used in New York City and Westchester. The units entered service in 1974 and 1976. One megawatt powers about 1,000 homes.
The NRC said in a press release on Friday that three judges of its Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) would begin evidentiary hearings on Oct. 15 to consider 10 complaints raised by New York state and two public interest groups, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc and Riverkeeper Inc. The initial hearings will be held in Tarrytown, New York, near the plant.
The NRC has scheduled several days of hearings through at least mid-December. The NRC said the judges would issue a ruling at a later date.
New Orleans-based Entergy filed with the NRC to renew the reactors' original 40-year operating licenses in 2007. While the NRC has decided many routine renewal applications in less than two years, energy experts say Indian Point's renewal bid is the most contentious in the nation so far and is expected to take the longest for the NRC to conclude.
To date, the NRC has approved 73 license renewals for the nation's 104 reactors and rejected none.
See factbox on pending license renewals
The longest renewal process to date was Entergy's Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts, which took the NRC more than six years to finally decide in May 2012.
In December 2012, NRC staff recommended approval of the Indian Point renewal application. Since then, the staff has taken another look at its environmental evaluation.
In June, the NRC requested public comment on the draft supplement to the staff's environmental report to include updated data from Entergy on the effect of plant operations on fish and other aquatic life in the Hudson River.
Many power plants and industrial facilities use water from a river, lake or ocean to cool plant systems.
WATER PERMIT The NRC is not the only group looking at Indian Point.
In 2010, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said it would not issue a water permit for Indian Point, needed before the NRC can renew the license, until Entergy installed a so-called closed-loop cooling system to avoid killing fish and other aquatic life in the Hudson River.
The water permit issue is currently before an administrative law judge at the DEC.
Entergy has said a closed-loop cooling system, like a cooling tower, would cost too much and take too long to build. Cooling towers would cost up to $2 billion and could not enter service before 2029, the company has said.
Instead, Entergy has suggested a Wedgewire screen system to prevent fish from being sucked into the plant's cooling system. This could be installed in about three years at a cost of $200 million to $250 million, according to the company.
(Reporting By Scott DiSavino; editing by John Wallace)
Keywords: UTILITIES ENTERGY/INDIANPOINT