Debate begins over environment


December 19, 2007

It's too dangerous and requires too much water, environmental critics of nuclear power say.

Proponents say these criticisms are overblown and outdated, considering new technology.

Victoria County is now at the heart of that controversy.

"Our organization is pretty staunchly against expansion of nuclear energy on several accounts," said J.J. Karabias, a federal field associate for Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group.

Karabias believes the estimated $6 billion to fund construction of a new plant should be diverted to renewable energy - solar and wind power, he said.

"If we put solar panels on 7 percent of the rooftops in Texas, we could provide enough electricity to power the entire state. That's substantial," he said.

Christopher Crane, Exelon's chief operating officer, said that it's financially unfeasible to fully fund such renewable technologies and that nuclear power complements the state's and country's growing energy needs.

The state's electric industry, which predominantly powers Texas, ranks highest in the U.S. for carbon dioxide emissions, third highest in nitrogen oxide emissions and fifth highest in sulfur dioxide emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration.

"Nuclear is a large-scale energy source that is carbon free," Crane said. "It's safe and economical power."

Nuclear power supporters say dirty energy sources - such as coal-fired power plants - beg for a cleaner nuclear power replacement. The desire to lessen the country's dependence on fossil fuels has renewed the interest in nuclear power.

Cyrus Reed is an Austin-based policy consultant for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Reed is worried about disposing of a nuclear power plant's radioactive waste.

Scientists and lawmakers are working to develop means to safely dispense of spent fuel rods, although no clear-cut resolution is ready.

Crane said spent fuel rods would be temporarily contained on-site in sturdy canisters.

Venice Scheurich, conservation chairwoman for the Coastal Bend Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, worries additionally about nuclear power's massive appetite for water.

Reed put it this way: "You've got this water use at a time when scientists are telling us the drought potential is great and that the population is growing and going to be using more water."

Others say the system can't support such a massive need for water and that depleting it of 75,000-acre-feet yearly would force municipalities or growing industries to tap into limited groundwater to supply needs.

Crane, and Thomas O'Neill, Exelon's vice president of new plant development, said water won't be an issue. Studies conducted via the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority prove it, they say.

Bill West, general manager of GBRA, supported those statements.

Scheurich also expressed concerns that harmful chemicals can leak from a plant or cooling pond into the ground and water supply. Tritium and radiation - both found at plant sites - can harm humans and animals. The elements require 250 years to decay, she said.

The State of Illinois sued Exelon in 2006 and alleged such leakages.

"This predates Exelon, but back in 1997 this plant spilled discharged water that contained tritium," Exelon spokesman Craig Nesbit said.

Exelon formed in 2000 - years after the spill - and unknowingly inherited a plant that had leaked, he said. Although a lengthy process, Nesbit said, Exelon is cleaning that spill.

Crane said evolving technology decreases the likelihood of such leaks and that the operating record of current plants is excellent. Compared to fossil fuel stations, nuclear plants store a limited number of chemicals and use less water, he added.

The environment is better off because nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or greenhouse gases, Nesbit said.

The amount of "clean" energy the country's 104 nuclear plants produce equates to removing 131 million automobiles from the road - when considering the amount of carbon dioxide emitted at less clean-burning plants, Nesbit said.

Mina Williams, vice chairwoman of the Coastal Bend Sierra Club, isn't convinced. She wrote in an e-mail that the organization will study details of the Exelon plan as they become public.

"At this time, so little is known about the specifics of Exelon's proposal that it is not possible to evaluate potential impacts on the whooping cranes or other wildlife in the area," Williams wrote.

Gabe Semenza is a reporter for the Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6519 or gsemenza @

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