Environment, safety at forefront of Victoria County nuclear plant contentions


July 10, 2011 at 2:10 a.m.
Updated July 11, 2011 at 2:11 a.m.

Environmental and safety issues are at the forefront of concerns regarding Exelon Nuclear's proposed Victoria County nuclear plant.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board granted full party status to Texans for a Sound Energy Policy and accepted the concerns into review regarding Exelon's Early Site Permit application.

Full party status means Texans for a Sound Energy Policy can participate in all respects to the site permit, Jim Blackburn, attorney for the energy policy organization, said in a phone interview. The organization can file things and work as active participants throughout the process.

"Had they not granted us intervener status, we wouldn't have been able to comment or submit anything in the legal proceeding," he said.

Exelon officials do not view the contentions as a stumbling block, however.

Craig Nesbit, director of communication for Exelon Nuclear, said the company is sure it can move beyond the concerns and prove that any impact the site would have on wildlife would be nonexistent or very small, and that no geological features at the site would interfere with plant construction.

Of the 23 original contentions the organization submitted, the board admitted 14 into review, according to a Texans for a Sound Energy Policy news release. Eight of those 14 were consolidated into two separate contentions, bringing the number of those under review to eight.

Two safety contentions focus on inadequate identification and movement of growth faults at the proposed site.

The board ruled that Exelon may not have provided sufficient geological data for growth faults at the proposed plant site and might have underestimated the risk of surface deformation, according to the news release.

The board also ruled Exelon's Safety Analysis Report might dramatically underestimate growth faults' recent surface movement. Field studies showed rates of movement 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than Exelon's report states, according to the news release.

The third safety concern relates to dangers in locating a plant on a site with hundreds of active and abandoned oil and gas wells.

Texans for a Sound Energy Policy contends Exelon failed to provide adequate data regarding the wells and borings at the proposed site, according to the release.

Nesbit said he did not believe the oil and gas pipelines would pose a threat to the potential nuclear plant.

"We're confident we can demonstrate there are no wells or pipelines past, present or future that would interfere with plant construction," he said.

Another environmental contention admitted would require further analysis of the environmental impacts that come with enhanced seepage of contaminants from the plant's cooling pond, into oil and gas wells and borings, according to the release.

Exelon has not identified how it will prevent or mitigate the impact by identifying and plugging the wells and borings, according to the release.

Blackburn said the organization is pleased the board took matters seriously and agreed they warrant deeper investigation.

"Exelon's narrow view of site safety issues was rejected, and even Exelon has agreed that there are disputed environmental issues and conflicts with their scientific analysis," he said in the news release. "Post-Fukushima, the entire world is taking a closer look at issues of safety surrounding nuclear power plants. The licensing process this Victoria County Exelon site is undergoing is one of the first opportunities for the NRC to decide what nuclear safety in the United States will look like moving forward."

On the environmental front, the board ruled Exelon must take a closer look at climate change's impact on water availability and aquatic resources in the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins, an issue not mentioned in Exelon's application.

The board admitted two contentions concerning the proposed plant's impact on the San Antonio Bay and the endangered Whooping Crane.

Texans for a Sound Energy Policy contends the plant's water use would impact cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Water withdrawals from the Guadalupe River would significantly reduce fresh water flowing into San Antonio Bay, according to the release, which would increase salinity and impact the cranes' drinking water and food sources.

Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act prohibits the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from issuing a license to Exelon if it would jeopardize the cranes or alter their critical habitat, according to the release.

"The Whooping Crane is the icon of the Endangered Species Act, and there has never been a nuclear power plant sited in a location where the Department of the Interior and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have so much at stake," Blackburn said. "This is a serious Section 7 issue that has the attention of two federal regulatory agencies - and we are heartened that the NRC has admitted this issue for further litigation."

Finally, Texans for a Sound Energy Policy maintained from the start of the Early Site Permit process that Victoria was an unsuitable location for a nuclear plant and questioned Exelon's decision against its initial choice, Matagorda. The Matagorda County site does not face the problems and impacts identified at the Victoria site.

The board ruled with Texans for a Sound Energy Policy that Exelon must rigorously explore and evaluate all alternative sites, according to the release.

This ruling begins a two-year legal process during which contentions will be analyzed, Exelon will revise its application and, if new information comes to light, Texans for a Sound Energy Policy will file additional contentions, according to the release.

"We look forward to the opportunity to prove our case that there is not just one but a host of factors that render this site unsuitable for a nuclear power plant," he said in the release.



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