Atomic debate stirred over expansion of Comanche Peak nuclear plant

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Dallas Morning News

GRANBURY – The prospect of expanding Comanche Peak, the two-reactor plant 75 miles southwest of Dallas that churns out nuclear power, is stirring arguments over the atom that date back to the first round of nuclear construction decades ago, plus some new ones barely imagined in the 1970s.

Federal regulators heard Thursday from Comanche Peak’s owner and operator, Luminant Generating Co., and from a group of opponents on some issues that have long dominated nuclear debate, such as the consequences and likelihood of a catastrophic radioactive accident.

Three Nuclear Regulatory Commission administrative law judges sifting through Luminant’s application to add two reactors to the two-reactor plant also listened as the company and its opponents argued over newer concerns, such as a potential terrorist strike on the plant with a hijacked airliner.

The judges are considering whether Luminant included enough information about environmental impacts in documents submitted with its NRC license application. Opponents say the review was inadequate, while the company calls it the most comprehensive such study in history.

Comanche Peak – which received its Unit 1 operating license 20 years ago Saturday — is among 18 sites nationwide where power companies have filed applications to build new reactors, the first to be proposed in about 30 years. Some recently announced reactors are on hold and might not be built for economic or other reasons, but Comanche Peak is moving forward.

Three sites are in Texas: Comanche Peak in Somervell County; the existing South Texas Plant in Matagorda County; and a new plant proposed in Victoria County. Amarillo is also a potential site.

Plans for new reactors are working their way through a streamlined but still complex licensing procedure at the NRC, which is run by a five-member commission. President Barack Obama has appointed one sitting commissioner and will fill two vacancies.

Obama is a nuclear power supporter, describing it as a clean and efficient source of electricity and part of a comprehensive energy strategy. His administration, with congressional approval, is providing billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees for new plants, hoping to encourage investors to back the plans.

At the same time, the administration has stopped work on a permanent repository for highly radioactive, long-lived nuclear plant waste. Waste now sits in storage at each plant.

Finances for the new plants are in flux, but industry experts say they expect most new reactors to cost about $10 billion.

Each new plant undergoes engineering and environmental scrutiny. Comanche Peak’s environmental review, the topic of Thursday’s hearing in Granbury, is guiding the NRC as it determines whether Luminant’s plan complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.

That law requires consideration of impacts on public health and safety, water, air, land and wildlife.

The review also provides a one-stop source to members of the public who want to review the expansion plan’s environmental consequences for themselves.

Those factors make the review’s adequacy a major factor in the government’s decision on Luminant’s plan.

"The question is: Is the information that they have provided complete?" the NRC panel’s chairman, Ann Marshall Young, told about 30 people in the jury assembly room of the Hood County Justice Center.

Luminant attorney Steve Frantz told the NRC judges that the company had prepared the most detailed environmental review of a nuclear plant ever attempted, covering everything from land use to the consequences of simultaneous accidents at all four reactors.

"Nobody’s ever gone to this extent before," Frantz said.

Opponents, including some Texas environmental groups and state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, contended that Luminant’s environmental review omits crucial and required information.

The hole in the environmental review "may have been partially filled, but it has not been completely filled," said Robert Eye, the opponents’ attorney.

Eye said the review does not adequately address whether a severe accident at one unit might make it impossible for the other units to shut down quickly. Neither, he said, does it fully consider alternatives to nuclear power, including new technologies in wind and solar power and natural gas.

The federal environmental policy act requires consideration of alternatives to the proposed project.

In earlier proceedings, the NRC judges allowed those contentions to move forward, indicating that they raised valid issues. Luminant then revised its environmental report to address both issues.

Frantz told the judges that Luminant’s new submittals should automatically invalidate the opponents’ objections about the review’s adequacy. Some issues, such as making the plant safe from an airborne terrorist attack, are covered by NRC design and construction rules, but their possible consequences get little attention in the environmental review because they are considered "speculative and remote," he said.

"We have addressed a reasonable set of alternatives," he said. Unless some new issue arises, he said, "there is no reason to go further."

Eye, however, said it isn’t reasonable for Luminant to dismiss the potential of wind and solar power as substitutes for new reactors when wind power is growing rapidly in Texas and wind and solar technology is "advancing on almost a daily basis."

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