Bay City debates nuclear power in its backyard
Commission hearing on proposed plant expansion draws strong support and opposition

Feb. 5, 2008
Houston Chronicle

BAY CITY - The nuclear power debate returned to the public square in Texas on Tuesday when activists, politicians and citizens lined up to speak up about proposals to expand the nuclear power plant near Bay City.

In a pair of public meetings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took comments on what issues should be considered in evaluating a proposed expansion of the South Texas Project, the 2,700-megawatt power plant in rural Matagorda County.

The two new reactors could be the first new units approved for construction in the U.S. in 30 years.

"We are not here to promote nuclear energy," said Nilesh Chokshi, deputy director of environmental review in the NRC's office of new reactors. Rather the agency is focused on the safe construction and operation of the nation's nuclear power plants, he said.

Located south of Bay City near Wadsworth, the plant broke ground in 1976. The work was completed in fits and starts because of cost overruns - from a $1 billion estimate in 1973 to $6 billion when finished in 1986 - and a change of contractor because of quality concerns.

The plant has ranked high for energy output in recent years, however, with Unit 1 named the top producing nuclear power generator in the world last year.

New Jersey-based NRG Energy, Texas' second-largest power producer, owns the largest stake in the plant, 44 percent. Public utilities in San Antonio and Austin own 40 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

The proposed expansion drew political support during Tuesday's meetings.

"You've heard of NIMBY - not in my backyard?" said Bay City Mayor Richard Knapik. "Well, I'm for PIMBY - please, in my backyard. What community would not welcome a $6.4 billion investment in their backyard, 4,000 construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs?"

Waste storage issue

But many speakers opposed the expansion, citing among other concerns the lack of a permanent storage site for nuclear waste, the possible effects on groundwater of uranium mining in the U.S. and abroad and insufficient attention to conservation and energy efficiency as alternatives to new power plants.

"You're being given a false choice here, either two new nuclear reactors or no new jobs", said Laura Cushing, an organizer with the Southwest Workers Union from San Antonio, who spoke against the project.

A number of speakers criticized the licensing process and what they said was a small window of opportunity for the public to intervene.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, noted that two key parts of the plant's expansion application are incomplete and that Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials stopped review of them until the operator works out technical issues with the firm designing the reactors.

"How can we in the community have a fair and adequate opportunity to review all of the application to determine if we want to intervene or raise issues if the application isn't even complete?" Smith asked. "Will you guarantee us a free pass on documents that might later come across your desk from the company?"

Provision to intervene

Jim Biggins, an attorney with the commission, said a provision lets the public intervene at a later date if applicants file documents that raise new issues.

Georgia Rice Herreth, a former Bay City council member, said she thought the community was better prepared to handle the challenges that might come with the building of two more reactors than it was when the first two were built.

"There was a lot of controversy then, as there is now, but that's good because it brings out things that may not have been considered," Herreth said.

Comments from Tuesday's meetings will be used by the agency in considering the expansion application, particularly the draft environmental impact statement that is expected to be filed in the next year or so. Another public meeting will follow the filing of that document.

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