Last week, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) representatives announced that they intend to approve a draft environmental document related to the expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear power plant. Concern about the environmental impact of the proposed expansion has been a key regulatory obstacle for the project.

The federal regulators said Friday they will hold public meetings in Bay City in May to hear comments on the commission’s finding that "there are no environmental impacts that would preclude" the issuance of a license to build and operate two new reactors at the plant, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"After considering the environmental aspects of the proposed action, the NRC staff’s preliminary recommendation to the Commission" is that the license "be issued as proposed," the filing says.

The reactor project, led by Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Energy, has hit a number of roadblocks in the past year, including the withdrawal of San Antonio utility CPS Energy as a partner. But operators say they are confident they may be next in line for a federal loan guarantee and that new partners are waiting in the wings.

"This is a very important and positive step for the South Texas Project expansion that shows the strength of the application," NRG spokesman David Knox told the Houston Chronicle in an interview.

The Public Citizen group is challenging the nuclear plant’s expansion on the grounds that it will be too expensive and the cost estimates are overly optimistic.

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen told the Houston Chronicle that he thinks it’s important for residents near the plant to show up for the hearings on May 6. "It’s those people on the ground that live near the plant and use those resources near there that are best able to judge what the impacts will be from a plant like this," Smith said.

The NRC filing appears to address some of the issues raised by opponents of the plant in hearings before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel. The panel said the application still will need to address issues such as how a serious accident at one of the reactors would affect the other units.

A long-time top producer, the South Texas Project facility generated more electricity in 2009 than any other two-unit nuclear power facility in the nation.

Sources: South Texas Project, Houston Chronicle, Public Citizen