Board rejects challenge to Levy County nuclear plant


Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 8:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 8:36 p.m.

OCALA - The proposed building of a nuclear plant in Levy County got a push forward Tuesday when the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected a challenge by two environmental groups opposing the plan on environmental grounds, according to a media release Tuesday from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the Ecology Party of Florida had challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's final environmental impact statement on the nuclear plant's environmental impacts. In late October, the ASLB presided over a two-day hearing in Bronson, during which the environmental groups had a chance to question the report in front of panels of experts.

The location of the proposed Levy County two-reactor project is nine miles inland from the Gulf Coast, in an area with more than 700 acres of fresh-water wetlands.

NRC spokesperson Joey Ledford said Tuesday's decision was "another milestone in a long process."

"We are one step closer to a combined license," he added, referring to a combined construction and operating license, to be carried out by Duke Energy.

The first two nuclear plants approved for a combined license — Plant Vogtle in Georgia and Plant Summer in South Carolina — are currently under construction, Ledford added.

The proposed plant in Florida must still clear a few hurdles, however, before licensing would be granted, Ledford continued.

In the coming months, the NRC will produce its final safety report, which looks at things like how weather patterns might affect safety — if heavy winds, for example, could cause radiation to be released, or the impact of flooding. It also looks at off-site power supplies, Ledford said.

The NRC is also in the process of re-examining its plans for nuclear waste storage after a U.S. court of appeals last June struck down certain aspects of the NRC's waste confidence decision "that said we feel confident that nuclear fuel can be stored safely and without environmental impacts," Ledford said.

He added that "there isn't a plan for a permanent repository," but that "staff is looking into a long-term solution."

The lack of a repository is one of the issues that the environmental groups opposed to the plant's construction are worried about.

"You would think that would be a major problem (to solve) … before you would allow anyone to turn on the reactor," said Diane Curran, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer representing the environmental groups.

Calling the lack of a repository an example of the "backwards thinking" behind the project, Curran added that its planners are putting off important problems for future generations to solve.

"We are very concerned that the board (ASLB) was punting the whole problem into the future, by relying on a state monitoring plan that doesn't even exist yet," Curran said.

One example of putting off problems is the idea of building a desalination plant should salt water intrustion in drinking water become an issue.

"When is the bill for the desalination plant? How much do they (utility) want to pay for something with back-end costs?" she asked. "By basically not dealing with the environmental issues now, the NRC is adding more potential costs at the end," she said.

"It's too bad that our children and grandchildren will have to deal with it," Curran added.

Curran called the ASLB's decision a big disappointment.

"We thought we showed with a lot of support that the environmental impact statement did not reflect an adequate understanding of the geology of the site, the groundwater and environmental impacts on the wetlands," Curran said.

One particular objection raised in October focused on the fact that Duke Energy and the NRC did not base their model on the region's own karst geology, which is characterized by rocky ground and sinkholes that can cause preferential pathways in water flow.

The groups Curran represents do have the right to appeal the ASLB's decision. "We are looking into that," she said.

Ledford said that if its safety document is approved and the waste confidence issue resolved, there is a final mandatory hearing.

"That would be the last attempt to argue that the license should not be granted," he said.

And pending that approval, Duke Energy would still have to sign off on it, Ledford said.

"If and when the utility is granted the license, it becomes a business decision for them whether to proceed with operation and construction," Ledford said.

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