A coalition of nine environmental groups said Monday afternoon that a defeat at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier in the day would be only a temporary setback in its legal fight to halt construction of the nation’s first commercial reactors in three decades.
The coalition, led by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, is challenging the NRC licenses to build and operate two reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro. It has asked the NRC to stop work at the $14 billion project while a federal appeals court in Washington decides the legal challenge to the licenses.
Coalition members say the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled four commercial reactors in Fukushima, Japan, shows that Vogtle is more dangerous to people and the environment than was originally understood.
“We think that the commission really should have acted more prudently in light of Fukushima,” said Arjun Makhijani, the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
In a conference call with reporters, coalition members announced plans to file their motion to interrupt construction with the federal court also weighing the licensing appeal.
According to Makhijani, it’s a matter of time before the NRC issues instructions to alter the designs to incorporate lessons learned from the Japanese accident. It would be cheaper to make the changes early in construction by stopping now rather than doing it later, he said.
However, Southern Nuclear, the company that is building the reactors and will operate them for the utilities that own them, argues that a delay now would be costly.
Besides, the NRC says it had considered the Japanese experience when it issued the licenses in February after reviewing its task force report.
“We ultimately accepted the staff’s position that our regulatory approach and our regulated plants’ capabilities ‘allow the task force to conclude that a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States and [that] continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent threat to public health and safety,’” wrote NRC Secretary Annette Vietti-Cook in Monday’s unanimous commission decision.
The commission denied the environmental coalition’s request because it found that the challenge was not certain to win in court.
“Petitioners simply have not shown, from a (National Environmental Protection Act) perspective, that the Fukushima events or our potential regulatory responses to those events reveal environmental impacts that differ significantly from those the NRC has already studied,” Vietti-Cook wrote.
Diane Curran, a lawyer representing the coalition, said Monday’s denial wasn’t unexpected but the group had to exhaust its options with the agency before taking its case to court.
One reason no utilities have built a nuclear power plant in more than 30 years is the cost of design changes ordered by the NRC during construction.
The Vogtle owners and SCANA Energy, which is in the process of getting a license for a reactor in South Carolina, only decided to proceed after the commission agreed to issue a combined construction and operating license, which supposedly means no change orders issued midstream.
Curran said Monday she doesn’t believe the NRC will stick to its promise and will instead re-open the license consideration and order modifications.
“We don’t think this license is golden,” she said.