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Group says Grand Gulf not ready to expand

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, speaks Thursday during a public hearing at Port Gibson City Hall. (C. Todd ShermanThe Vicksburg Post)

Entergy preparing to file application with NRC to study second reactor

[05/30/03] With application for regulatory approval of expansion at Grand Gulf weeks away, a nuclear-power-industry watchdog group’s director said the nation is not ready for new reactors.

Paul Gunter of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service spoke to groups in Jackson, Vicksburg and Port Gibson, the home of Entergy’s Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, Thursday.

“Frankly, I’m here to say that they’re not ready,” Gunter said of the nuclear-power industry, the public, Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Entergy is preparing to file, in July, an application with the NRC for an early site permit.

If the company received such a permit it would be the first of two licenses required by the NRC, and it would give the company the option of seeking the second license if it decided to do so during the following 20 years. The permit is renewable for another 20 years without further public comment.

During the year following Entergy’s filing of an early-site-permit application, the NRC would hold a public hearing to receive citizens’ comments, and it would accept written comments over several weeks, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.

A license to begin construction, if and when Entergy decided to seek one, would require its own set of public hearings. Once obtained, however, it would require no further regulatory approval before beginning operation.

The imminent testing of that new, streamlined regulatory-approval process, changed since the last time a nuclear power plant was built about 23 years ago, together with Bush administration policy and federal financial incentives designed to encourage the completion of new such plants by 2010, has generated renewed interest among utility companies, including Entergy. Two other companies also plan to apply for permits elsewhere in the U.S. about the same time.

And the prospective construction of a second reactor at the Grand Gulf site has generated interest among citizens like Warren County artist Martha Ferris, who contacted Gunter, a Mississippi native, who agreed to speak here on NIRS views. “There were questions and concerns that I felt were overlooked or glossed over,” said Ferris, who lives within sight of the existing reactor’s cooling tower. She said an informational briefing NRC staff held in November to inform residents of the opportunities they would have for future involvement attracted little notice.

Two of the groups Gunter spoke with Thursday were the Vicksburg Rotary Club and a public meeting attended by about 50 people at Port Gibson City Hall.

“The United States nuclear industry has yet to demonstrate and license a scientifically approved, long-term management plan” for storing nuclear waste, Gunter told Rotarians. “There are cheaper, safer, cleaner ways to boil water,” he said. At nuclear plants, heat from confined nuclear reactions boils water to make the steam that spins a turbine to make electricity. Spent or used nuclear fuel rods remain at Grand Gulf in pools of water because there has been no place to ship them since the plant went online in 1985.

The NIRS argues that the risks of nuclear-power generation, which include accidents or terrorist attacks that could result in the release of dangerous radioactivity, are unacceptable, Gunter said.

Production of nuclear power has been second to safety in some cases, and the NRC’s performance has raised questions about its competence for protecting the public from potential nuclear disasters, Gunter said.

The NRC itself, a five-member commission of presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate, would rule on whether to grant the permit Entergy plans to seek, with a majority vote required, Burnell said. Entergy’s Carl Crawford has said the NRC’s decision would come in about two years.

Before the early-site permitting process was approved in 1989, companies faced less predictability of regulatory approval, including the risk of completing construction of a plant and being denied permission to begin operation. Nuclear power plants take about eight years to plan, license and construct, including the early-site permitting process, which takes about three years.

Administration energy policy notes advancements in nuclear-power-plant efficiency and design since they were last built, and says increased demand for electricity relative to supply makes increasing capacity necessary.

Gunter said the United States has the technology to reduce its electricity consumption by 45 percent, and should spend its resources on researching alternative sources instead of promoting the addition of new nuclear capacity.

Spent fuel, which remains radioactive, from the nation’s 103 current nuclear plants is to go to long-term waste storage at Yucca Mountain, Nev., when that plan becomes operational.

Gunter said conflicting scientific studies have been done on the Yucca Mountain site, which is at risk of earthquake, groundwater seepage and escape and is near a field of volcanoes.

He said a salt-dome site near Hattiesburg was studied decades ago by a Department of Energy predecessor for possible future use as a waste-storage site, and that site could be considered again.

Financial incentives, including half of Entergy’s early-site-permit costs of $10 million, have been offered by the federal government. After returning from its Memorial Day recess, the Senate is to resume work on an energy bill that has passed the House of Representatives. It includes up to $9 billion over 10 years in construction-loan guarantees and power-purchase agreements for utilities that build new nuclear plants, said Marnie Funk of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Republican staff. Other published estimates of the incentives’ value have ranged as high as $30 billion.

Each new plant costs $1 billion to $3 billion, Funk said.