Thursday’s NRC Vote on New Vogtle Reactors Prompts Legal Challenges

As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) prepares to vote on Thursday on whether to approve a combined construction and operating license (COL) for Southern Co.’s proposed 2,234-MW expansion of its Vogtle nuclear plant, anti-nuclear activists are gearing up to oppose the decision. Meanwhile, Progress Energy is reportedly considering shelving its proposed Levy County, Fla., reactor.

The historic vote expected tomorrow, Feb. 9, could greenlight construction of the first new nuclear power plant in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Southern has proposed to build two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at its Vogtle power plant southeast of Augusta, Ga. If the COL is approved by the NRC, the first unit could come online by 2016. The second reactor would follow in 2017.

In February 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) conditionally approved an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for the project, which has been estimated to cost about $14 billion.

The NRC also is considering a 2008-filed license for Scana Corp.’s proposal to build two AP1000 reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station site in Fairfield County, S.C. If approved, those reactors (Units 2 and 3) will come online in 2016 and 2019.

Anti-nuclear groups on Monday asked the NRC to delay the vote to approve the Vogtle COL and give them more time to prepare a federal lawsuit against the proposed licensing. The nine groups—including Friends of the Earth, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), and Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League—contend that the NRC will violate federal law because it would not have considered lessons from the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year. The groups are seeking a court order that could force the NRC to prepare a new environmental impact statement for the project.

SACE, meanwhile, has raised questions about the scant information provided by the DOE, even under Freedom of Information Act proceedings, about its $8.3 billion loan guarantee—which it calls “more than a dozen times greater than the failed Solyndra loan guarantee.”

“Based on the limited information produced to date, it appears that the power companies had to put almost no ‘skin in the game,’ only promising to pay a token credit subsidy fee of what could be as little as 0.5 or 1.5 percent of the total loan principal,” the group claims.

It adds that private lenders had declined to finance new reactors because of the “enormously high cost of new nuclear power and the substantial risk that any such investment will fail. … And Vogtle does have a history that should trouble taxpayers worried about assuming responsibility for the massive loan guarantee: the original two reactors at the Georgia site took almost 15 years to build, came in 1,200 percent over budget and resulted in the largest rate hike at the time in Georgia.”

The Tampa Bay Times, meanwhile, reports that Progress Energy may cancel a development and construction contract for its Levy County plant. The utility will continue to seek federal approval for the $20 billion project and reassess the project once the company receives its COL from the NRC, Progress spokeswoman Suzanne Grant was quoted as saying.

Progress Energy, which is seeking federal approval to merge with Duke Energy, in January reached a settlement agreement with Florida’s Public Service Commission over its damaged Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County, Fla. That plant has been offline since the fall of 2009 after three cracks were found in the reactor’s concrete containment building.

Sources: POWERnews, NRC, SACE, The Tampa Bay Times, Progress Energy

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