The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has authorized Entergy’s (NYSE: ETR) 660-MW Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., to continue operating for an additional 20 years, until mid-2032.

It’s all part of the bigger debate as to whether nuclear energy will grow its market share in this current climate or whether it will maintain it, or even shrink. The debate also highlights the current dissension among the NRC’s commissioners, and who might replace the exiting NRC chair.

Outgoing NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko was the lone vote against the license extension among the five-member commission. The controversial Jaczko, who announced his resignation May 21, was also the lone member of the panel to vote against issuance of new nuclear plant licenses in Georgia and South Carolina earlier this year – which were NRC’s first such approvals in more than 30 years.

The current 40-year operating license at Pilgrim was set to expire June 8. With the long-sought-after license extension now in hand, Entergy can perhaps focus more attention on negotiating a new labor agreement for the plant with Utility Workers Union of America Local 369.

The labor contract expired earlier this month, and Entergy hopes to reach a new four-year agreement. A federal mediator has been called in to help the parties overcome their differences.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., blasted the NRC’s decision to approve the license renewal while many opposition groups were still trying to raise concerns about the plant before NRC.

“The NRC shouldn’t be short circuiting the process and short-changing residents by moving forward with license approval before all the efforts to improve nuclear and environmental safety at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station have been resolved,” Markey said in a May 25 news release.

Entergy Nuclear filed Pilgrim’s license renewal application on Jan. 25, 2006, making this the longest license review on record, which would appear to contradict the claims that the review process had been ‘short circuited.’

“During the NRC’s more than six years of review, people were afforded multiple chances to attend public meetings so regulators could get their input and hear their concerns,” said Entergy Nuclear CEO and Chief Nuclear Officer John Herron. “The public also had almost unlimited access to the NRC’s record of its extensive inspections of the plant."

Entergy said the plant produces enough power to supply 10% of the electric demand in Massachusetts.

Wayne Barber is chief of power generation for Generation Hub, a unit of Energy Central.