Citizens file to stop STP nuke expansion

Greg M. Schwartz

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If CPS Energy thinks the citizens of South Texas are just going to stand by while the company sinks billions of dollars into a risky nuclear expansion project, it looks like they've got another think coming. Several Texas groups filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week to block the expansion of two more reactors at the South Texas Project in Bay City.

“Our contentions laid out the many defects in the South Texas Project license application, including inadequate fire protection, the lack of viable radioactive waste disposal plan, an inability to secure against airplane attacks, vast water consumption, water contamination risks, the failure to analyze clean, safe alternatives and an array of other financial, health and safety risks,” said Karen Hadden, Executive Director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, in a press release.

SEED was joined in its petition filing by Public Citizen and the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy. CPS Energy holds a 40 percent stake in the two nuclear reactors currently operating at the STP site and has been positioning to add two more. The city-owned utility has already spent or budgeted close to half a billion dollars on design and engineering for the two additional reactors.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told the Express-News that it would probably take at least six weeks to determine if the petition merits a hearing.

One of the most contentious issues surrounding the expansion plans has been the lack of a clear plan for the safe and economic disposal of radioactive waste, an issue which continues to dog the so-called national nuclear renaissance.

We don't have Yucca Mountain and we don't know what the costs of waste management are going to be,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani in a conference call yesterday. Makhijani, a SEED advisor from the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, has estimated the costs of adding the two reactors at a whopping $12.5 -$17 billion dollars.

“Utilities are really being very conventional at an unconventional time and not looking at the full range of options,” said Makhijani.

“Wind energy is booming in Texas, solar costs are coming down, the legislature supports efficiency and more renewable energy, transmission lines for renewable energy have been approved and with efficiency improvements, projected demand needs to be re- examined,” said SEED's Hadden.

Robert Eye, attorney for the petitioners, said that the application for the STP expansion has not addressed the enormous draw in groundwater resources that the new reactors would require.

“We are asking a tremendous amount from the citizens of Texas to go along with this water requirement,” said Eye.

Dr. Lauren Ross, a civil engineer with a focus on water resources from Austin-based Glenrose Engineering, said that the application from CPS partner NRG Energy proposes to defer the issue of groundwater availability until the application is approved. Ross said the groundwater availability is a “crucial safety factor” and that Texans should be wary of the NRC allowing new plants to operate under a discharge permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She said TCEQ's permit does not address radionuclides or heavy metals other than iron and copper.

“So essentially, the state of Texas is not regulating discharges from this facility,” said Ross. “It's a huge loophole and there's nothing in the permits that addresses thisâ?¦ You imagine that these power plants are going `to operate` in a regulatory environment where someone is paying attention to what's going on and that's not the case.”

Severe drought conditions in Texas are already threatening whooping cranes, an endangered species. The shortage of rain has made the marshes of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 35 miles from the STP site, almost as salty as the Gulf of Mexico. The salt levels have diminished the crab population, the main food source for the whooping cranes. SEED says the license application should, but doesn't, adequately research the possibility of radionuclides bioaccumulating in the ecosystem and further impacting the already endangered birds.

SEED's Hadden said that CPS had given a presentation in January where Deputy General Manager Steve Bartley said customer use had declined 16 percent in the last two years.

“So it's hard to see how this `STP expansion` is needed,” said Hadden. “In San Antonio, there's a push for a sustainability program, so these two things are in opposition. You'll have a disincentive for efficiency because you've got to use that power.”

Hadden said some estimates had consumer bills going up as much as 60 percent under the STP expansion, making it hard to see how CPS is going to convince the city and its residents to go along with such a plan.

CPS and NRG have said that they hope to obtain a license from the NRC by 2012 and to have the new reactors running by 2016 or 2017. CPS officials say the utility's legal department will study the petition.

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