In its first hearing since an earthquake and massive tsunami crippled Japan and threatened nuclear meltdown at several reactors, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission heard testimony today on whether to give early-stage approval to a site for a new nuclear plant in Texas.
“Everyone here should be sobered by the events in Japan,” said Jim Blackburn, lead attorney for a group opposed to the plant, Texans for a Sound Energy Policy. “Nuclear power is high risk. It’s a high-stakes business.”
The hearing was called to address the challenges raised by TSEP to the “early site permit” application filed by Exelon, a Chicago-based energy company.
Exelon is not currently seeking a full permit to build a plant in Victoria County — an expensive proposition even before the Japanese tragedy. The purpose of the early permit is so officials can vet all of the safety and environmental concerns about a site before a company invests significant capital there.
TSEP said that if it does not intervene now, it will not be able to contest the safety or environmental impact of the site later on if Exelon decides to build the nuclear plant.
TSEP is neutral on the use of nuclear energy but opposes the site chosen in Victoria County. The D.M. O’Connor family, landowners who have lived in Victoria for generations, has invested millions in TSEP to hire lawyers and engineers to conduct geological studies of the area.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission attorney said the review of the permit application in Victoria is ongoing, and that “no final decisions have been made about the substance of that application.” Several other new reactors — including two at Comanche Peak in Somervell County — have also been proposed for Texas.
The geology of the proposed South Texas site in Victoria County has been called into question by TSEP, which argues that geologic activity, combined with the lack of an adequate water supply, could pose a threat to safety. The area is not prone to earthquakes or tsunamis, but Victoria County has another sort of fault, called a growth fault, that can still shake things up. Unlike the sudden, jarring shift of tectonic plate movements, the shift of growth plates happens slowly over time. They won’t abruptly topple buildings, but they do create cracks in the sidewalk, for example.
Steve Frantz, lead attorney for Exelon, said the growth faults in Victoria “pose no seismic threat” because, “unlike those in Japan, they are not tectonic in nature.” The Final Safety Analysis Report submitted to the NRC by Exelon says that only one growth fault appears to be active in the area where the nuclear plant would be built.
Blackburn disagreed, saying TSEP found two or more active fault lines near the site — and that a large cooling basin that holds water used to operate the plant would be right on top of one. If a catastrophic, unpredictable event occurred, like it did in Japan, the water from the cooling pond could be used — like the seawater used by the Japanese — to prevent nuclear meltdown, Blackburn said.
But NRC attorneys said the cooling basin isn’t technically a safety feature, and that legally, TSEP cannot use it as a challenge to the safety of the site.
Blackburn asked the panel to look at the safety of the plant from a common-sense perspective. Because of the lack of available water, he said, “the cooling pond could function as a last resort."
The panel's chief technical judge, nuclear engineer Anthony Barrata, seemed to agree with this assertion. “I agree an office building might not be appropriate, but there is a caveat in there,” to consider the safety of the entire site — which includes the cooling pond — said Barrata, citing NRC regulations stating safety rules.
Exelon’s attorneys said there’s no reason to worry about a lack of water. The cooling basin isn’t considered a safety structure, because they will install separate structures — mechanical drafting cooling towers — that will hold a 30-day supply of water to cool the plant if there is an accident. The cooling basin would be sized in such a manner that there would be enough water where the plant could operate through the drought on record, the attorneys said.
Frantz said Exelon submitted a report to the NRC with thousands of pages on the safety of the site. He said Blackburn’s fears of potential disaster caused by growth faults are unfounded.
TSEP raised other concerns during the hearing as well, saying the nuclear plant could “cause long term damage" to a downstream estuary by drawing too much water from the Guadalupe River system. The estuary is home to the whooping crane, an endangered species.
Again, Exelon’s attorneys disagreed, saying the amount of water they would use would be relatively insignificant compared to the water that flows to the estuary. “We believe the plant is environmentally sound,” Frantz said.
Lara Uselding, a spokeswoman for the NRC, said the commission is not changing its policies because of the disaster in Japan and is still considering approving Exelon’s site in Texas if the company meets its stringent design and safety requirements. But the situation in Japan will factor in. “Obviously we’ll continue to review the incident in Japan, and if there’s any lessons learned … we will continue to monitor that and take that into consideration,” Uselding said.