Concerns Grow Over Risk of U.S. Nuclear Projects Post-Fukushima

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan is still unfolding five months later, with multiple meltdowns and significant radiation releases contaminating communities and farms downwind from the facility. Some nuclear experts are calling it “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind.”

The Fukushima accident is also raising questions about the U.S. nuclear industry's current plans to build new reactors and re-license old ones.

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Today, environmental and public-interest advocacy groups filed 19 legal challenges that ask the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to put the brakes on reactor licensing until it fully incorporates into its regulatory process the lessons learned from Fukushima.

A total of 25 groups and several individuals filed the contentions with the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. They cite the recently-released findings [pdf] of an NRC task force appointed to conduct an emergency review of the regulatory implications from the meltdowns and radioactive releases at TEPCO's Fukushima plant. The review identified both systemic and specific problems in how NRC regulations protect the public, pointing to issues including seismic hazards, flooding, fires, station blackouts, hydrogen gas production, the vulnerability of spent-fuel pools, and multi-reactor accidents.

“Significant regulatory changes are needed to ensure that existing or new nuclear reactors do not pose unacceptable safety and environmental risks to the public,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear expert with the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research who prepared a declaration [pdf] that was filed with the contentions. “In light of the disastrous and ongoing events at Fukushima, it is clear that the issues of public safety raised by the Task Force are exceptionally grave.”

The contentions filed today make the case that the substantial health and safety concerns identified by the NRC's Fukushima review must be considered under the National Environmental Policy Act, a law that requires all federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements for any planned actions. Issuing new licenses or re-licensing reactors before completing supplemental environmental impact statements that account for Fukushima's lessons, they argue, would be illegal.

“Federal law does not allow the NRC commissioners to ignore those warnings in order to accommodate the nuclear industry,” said Jim Warren, executive director of the North Carolina-based energy watchdog group NC WARN, one of the groups behind the filings.

There is division among the five commissioners about next steps for the review, however. While NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko is pressing to consider the review's recommendations within the next three months, the majority of the commissioners want to delay action by sending the review back to staff for further consideration. Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, issued a statement yesterday calling for a halt to “endless delay and studies of studies.”

The contentions filed with the NRC address reactors at nuclear facilities nationwide, including 11 plants in the South: the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar plant in Rhea County, Tenn. and its Bellefonte plant in Hollywood, Ala.; SCE&G's Summer plant near Jenkinsville, S.C.; NRG's South Texas plant near Bay City; Luminant's Comanche Peak plant southwest of Dallas; Southern Co./Georgia Power's Vogtle plant in Burke County, Ga.; FP&L's Turkey Point plant south of Miami; Progress Energy's Levy County plant in Florida and its Shearon Harris plant in Wake County, N.C.; Dominion's North Anna plant in Louisa County, Va.; and Duke Energy's Lee plant in Cherokee County, S.C.

Very Significant Uncertainties

Meanwhile, North Carolina regulators have dealt a blow to Duke Energy's plans to build two new reactors at the Lee plant, citing concerns that Fukushima may require construction revisions that call into question the project's costs and timeline.

Earlier this year, Duke Energy asked the N.C. Utilities Commission for authority to spend an additional $229 million on planning for the Lee reactors through the end of 2013, in addition to the $230 million it already spent so far. But in an order handed down last week, the NCUC limits the company to spending an additional $120 million over the next three years. The Public Service Commission of South Carolina also recently authorized Duke to spend $120 million through next June on development of the Lee project.

But that might not be enough to bring the reactors online — at least not on the schedule the company had hoped for. In his testimony to the NCUC earlier this year during a hearing related to the Lee project, Dhiaa Jamil, Duke Energy's chief nuclear officer, said that limiting the North Carolina share of the additional spending “may unduly hamper the Company's efforts to preserve the nuclear option for its customers in the 2021 time frame.”

In its Aug. 5 order, the NCUC pointed to “very significant uncertainties” surrounding the Lee proposal, citing questions about possible construction changes necessitated by Fukushima as well as future customer demand and costs related to spent-fuel storage — a still unsettled issue given the Obama administration's cancellation of the Yucca Mountain repository. The systems for cooling spent fuel at the Fukushima plant were damaged in the disaster, adding to fears about the accident's impact.

The NCUC also raised questions about whether North Carolina lawmakers will pass so-called “super CWIP” legislation, an acronym standing for “construction work in progress.” The CWIP legislation Duke is lobbying for would allow it and other utilities to raise customers' rates to finance new projects before they're built without holding public rate hearings. At an NCUC hearing in March, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers said such legislation would be essential to move forward on the Lee project.

Rogers had expected the super CWIP legislation to be introduced at the North Carolina legislature earlier this year. But after the Fukushima disaster began unfolding after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the decision was made to delay the legislation because it was, as Rogers said, “not the right time.” However, he also said he believes the legislation will be introduced and approved eventually because “[i]f the legislature says no, they're saying no to nuclear's future in this state.”

But super CWIP remains controversial among North Carolinians, with a poll [pdf] conducted earlier this year finding that 70 percent of the state's voters oppose the policy. The pre-payment approach presents an even bigger gamble given the post-Fukushima uncertainty.

Adding to concerns about paying for nuclear reactors before they're built, a Republican lawmaker from Florida wrote a letter to North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) earlier this year warning her what a bad deal CWIP turned out to be for his state's residents, who now face a $50/month average increase in their bills by 2020 to pay for new reactors at Progress Energy's Levy County plant. There are similar cost-recovery laws in South Carolina and Georgia, but such proposals recently failed in Iowa and Missouri.

The rate increases Duke wants for new nuclear reactors via super CWIP could come atop other rate hikes that are already in the works. Last month, Duke Energy filed a request with the NCUC to raise electric rates by about 15 percent on average to help pay for its new coal-burning plant under construction at its Cliffside facility in Western North Carolina, which would raise the $97 monthly bill for a typical residential customer by about $19. Duke Energy also recently asked for a 15 percent rate hike in South Carolina.

Businesses and local communities are concerned about the impact of Duke Energy's proposed rate hikes. As Facing South reported recently, a number of North Carolina municipalities are banding together to protest the proposed increases, while AARP in South Carolina is also gearing up to fight the hikes in that state.