Japan's nuclear crisis is on everyone's mind at Victoria nuclear hearing

By by Dianna Wray
March 16, 2011 at 10:01 p.m.
Updated March 15, 2011 at 10:16 p.m.

Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson listens to arguments on building a nuclear plant in Victoria during an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing for an early site permit of Exelon on Wednesday afternoon at the Leo J. Welder Center.

Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson listens to arguments on building a nuclear plant in Victoria during an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing for an early site permit of Exelon on Wednesday afternoon at the Leo J. Welder Center.

Japan's nuclear crisis may be thousands of miles away, but the issue was on everyone's minds as the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board convened in Victoria to hear arguments over building a nuclear power plant in Victoria.

Jim Blackburn of Texans for a Sound Energy Policy, a group that opposes building a nuclear plant in the area, noted the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, caused when the facility was damaged during last week's massive earthquake.

"TSEP appears today conscious of the serious and unfortunate events in Japan - events, which cannot and should not go unnoticed by the board," Blackburn said, addressing the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. "Nuclear power is a high risk, high stakes business. Everyone here should be sobered by the events in Japan and the seriousness of matters at hand."

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board met in the Leo J. Welder Center on Wednesday to hear oral arguments over the Early Site Permit submitted by Chicago-based company Exelon.

Bill Scott, representative for Exelon, rejected any comparisons between a possible site in Victoria and the nuclear situation in Japan.

"First of all, we're here in Victoria. We're not in Japan and we don't know precisely what is going on there. I think it's important to note that it was the tsunami that damaged the reactors, not the earthquake. They withstood the earthquake, which is what they were designed to do," Scott said.

Exelon filed an Early Site Permit for a location about 13 miles outside of Victoria in March 2010.

There are no current plans to build on the site - last year Exelon revised earlier plans that had them set to build a power plant in the next few years due to a drop in natural gas prices - but the company is working to get the permit to claim the site through the permit.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is an independent entity within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The board is made up of three administrative law judges - Michael Gibson, a lawyer; full-time justice Mark Barnett, an environmental engineer; and part-time justice Anthony Baratta Jr., a nuclear engineer.

The hearings were open to the public, though only the representatives for TSEP, Exelon and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were allowed to speak during the hearing.

The judges oversaw the first part of oral arguments on Wednesday, giving both sides a chance to discuss their viewpoints and answer the justices' questions over 23 contentions filed by TSEP.

Gibson noted that the board was not here to judge building the site - they were simply charged with deciding if there was a real legal dispute between the opposing sides.

"We're not talking about the merits. What we're trying to figure out is if there is a genuine dispute here, or are we just talking past each other? ...We're just trying to understand everything," Gibson said.

Blackburn assured the justices there was a real dispute to be resolved.

"To the extent we need a disagreement, I think we certainly have enough to disagree about here," Blackburn said.

Exelon representative Bill Scott said they were pleased with the hearing so far.

"It's going as expected. I don't think there have been any surprises so far," Scott said.

The contentions touched on issues that brought in the specter of the nuclear leak in Japan as well as larger issues of climate change. During the course of the hearing, both Exelon and TSEP representatives answered questions about the proposed plant's potential water usage, the number of fault lines near the property and whether all of the old oil and gas wells in the area can be plugged to prevent contamination to the water supply.

On most of these issues, the two sides disagreed, though they found common ground on one question.

J. Bradley Fewell, counsel for Exelon, said they expected at least one of the contentions to be fully admitted - the concern over the impact water use may have on the whooping cranes.

"Both the NRC and Exelon agree on that contention and we expect it will be admitted," Fewell said.

TSEP and Exelon did, however, disagree on the impact water usage would actually have, Gibson noted.

Blackburn said it could be catastrophic to the endangered species, while Frantz said it would not be that severe.

At the suggestion of the board, Exelon and TSEP representatives convened to discuss the contentions on the whooping cranes and see if the two sides could come an agreement.

Blackburn said he was pleased with how the oral arguments went during the first session.

After hearing all of the arguments, the board will issue a judgement admitting, denying or revising TSEP's contentions.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is scheduled to convene at 9 a.m. Thursday to continue hearing the oral arguments and let each side deliver a closing.

The hearing was attended by about 30 people.

Victoria resident Richard Fritz said he was glad they were holding a hearing before moving forward with the Early Site Permit, but he was still concerned about what he heard, he said.

"My main concern from the get-go was usage of water, and I still have those concerns," Fritz said.



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