Is it safe and environmentally feasible to build a nuclear power plant in Victoria County? The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission won't answer that question definitively for at least another two years.
But the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, an independent, three-judge panel of nuclear experts, has determined that safety and environmental claims concerning growth faults, underground oil and gas wells, and whooping cranes need to be investigated more thoroughly before the site can be declared suitable for a potential nuclear power plant.
The ruling is part of an ongoing process to vet all safety and environmental concerns before the NRC may grant an early site permit to Exelon, a Chicago-based energy corporation seeking land rights to potentially build a nuclear power plant at the site within the next 20 years. Texans for a Sound Energy Policy, a group funded by landowners in the Victoria area, filed the eight areas of concern approved by the board for more study. Over the next two years, TSEP, Exelon and the NRC will conduct and submit more research to investigate the viability of operating a nuclear power plant at the site.
“If there’s ever any information brought to light that shows this wouldn’t be a safe place to operate a reactor, or maybe the design needs changes, that would need to be addressed before a permit would be issued,” said Lara Uselding, spokeswoman for the NRC. The NRC is planning to release a summary of its research and concerns from local community members and officials next month, but the final decision on whether to grant the early site permit will not be made before 2013.
The board heard oral arguments from the NRC, TSEP and Exelon about the safety and environmental concerns during a two-day hearing in March. At the hearing, Exelon said it had not fully investigated the possible impact of the nuclear power plant on the whooping crane, an endangered species in the bays and estuaries downstream. The three parties reworked eight of TSEP's contentions related to the whopping crane into two contentions, which all parties agreed were admissible.
“It just doesn’t make sense to be locating a nuclear power plant that’s highly water consumptive in an area that isn’t blessed with a lot of water,” said Jim Blackburn, an attorney for TSEP. Blackburn said the potential nuclear power plant would use 75,000 acre-feet of the remaining undedicated 100,000 acre-feet of water in the Lower Guadalupe River Basin, which could potentially have a negative effect on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge — home to the whooping crane — and the economies of communities downstream.
“We agreed that the whooping crane needs to be investigated, we’ve said that from the beginning,” said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon.
The board also admitted safety contentions related to growth faults — which cause surface displacement over time — and active and abandoned oil and gas wells in the area.
“Post-Fukushima, the entire world is taking a closer look at issue of safety surrounding nuclear power plants,” Blackburn said in a statement. The movement of growth faults near abandoned oil and gas wells could be potentially dangerous, he said. More research should be conducted to answer the question “Does the ... continued oil and gas activity have a relationship with the geological faulting?” before the NRC approves the safety of the site, he said.
Although growth faults cannot cause earthquakes, like the tectonic faults that caused the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, earlier this year, the board agreed with TSEP that more investigation is needed on whether growth faults could potentially damage the facility.
Exelon stated in a safety report submitted to the NRC that they do not pose “any significant seismic hazard” and that the displacements caused by the faults can be identified and monitored over time.
But TSEP argued that Exelon underestimated the rate of movement in its reports. In the areas of concern accepted by the NRC, TSEP says the three-dimensional analysis it conducted of the growth faults in the Victoria area shows movement that may be 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than Exelon suggests in a safety report it filed, which used two-dimensional seismic analysis.
“We’re confident that we can demonstrate completely that those contentions aren’t valid, but you still have to go through that process,” Nesbit said. “It would make no sense for us to spend $15 billion investing in something that might not run. … It’s in our interest to do this the right way.”