Editor’s note: This story appears here courtesy of a content-sharing agreement with The Charlotte Observer. Read the original story here. Also, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s site on the plant can be found here.

WNC residents attend hearing, offer comment on new S.C. nuclear plant

By Bruce Henderson, bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

GAFFNEY, S.C. A thirst for jobs clashed with the fear of nuclear power in the first of two hearings Thursday on the Lee nuclear plant Duke Energy hopes to build 50 miles southwest of Charlotte.

Rendering of Lee nuclear plant, in South Carolina, courtesy of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff, who convened the meeting, heard familiar broadsides against nuclear energy – its tiny but potentially catastrophic risk of radiation-spewing accidents, heavy use of water and lack of permanent storage for nuclear wastes.

Several speakers questioned Lee’s impact on the Broad River – a river broad but not deep, one speaker noted – from which it will draw 50 million gallons of cooling water a day. Of that, 36 million gallons will evaporate.

“That’s an overriding thing for me,” said Mary Ellen Connolly, a York County resident who owns property near the Lee site. “Water is the new oil. If we’re going to give Duke 50 mgd and 51 mgd to everybody else, how can that be smart?”

The NRC also heard strong business-community support for the 2,000 construction jobs, increased tax base and up to 700 full-time workers the plant would bring Cherokee County, which suffers 12 percent unemployment.

“Here in Cherokee County, we’re for this,” said Jim Cook, director of the county economic development board. “We think it will bring jobs – and jobs are important, believe it or not.”

Lewis Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, had a retort for the anti-nuclear speakers who said energy efficiency could end the need for a new power plant. Companies that gobble electricity – one of his members pays $180 million a year, Gossett said – have already exhausted that route, he said.

“When you spend that kind of money on electricity, you better believe you look for ways to control costs,” he said. “By and large, they’ve run out of ways. We’ve got to have new (generating) capacity and this is the best way to have that.”

The meetings were held to seek public comment on a draft analysis by NRC staff of the plant’s environmental impacts. The staff has recommended granting Duke licenses to build the two-reactor plant.

Among the more serious impacts it noted was construction of a 620-acre impoundment, the largest of three Duke plans at the site to store cooling water during drought. The largest structure will harm nearly 66,000 feet of streams and 3.6 acres of wetlands, both protected by federal law, and cause “moderate” impacts to land- and water-based ecology, the report said.

A safety analysis will follow the environmental study. The NRC is expected to decide whether to grant Duke licenses to build and operate Lee, its first new plant since the mid-1980s, in 2013.

An anti-nuclear alliance, Beyond Nuclear, has filed petitions with the NRC to halt consideration of licenses for Lee and other proposed nuclear plants, including additions to a second S.C. plant, Summer north of Columbia, and Georgia’s Vogtle plant.

The group says the agency should wait until fully dissecting the nuclear catastrophe that partially melted fuel at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in March.

Retired mathematician Brian Crissey of Polk County, in a sub-basin of the Broad watershed, called Fukushima-like disasters the elephant in the room the NRC avoids. Such events, he said, present a “low probability of utterly mass destruction” while energy conservation offers “a high probability of virtually no impacts.”

“We’re dealing with a very strong, entrenched (nuclear) industry with its own ideas of what’s best for us,” he said, “and we’re not being asked.”

As work toward Lee continues, utilities are collaborating to share the risks and expense of building the first wave of new nuclear plants in a generation.

Jacksonville, Fla.’s municipal electric utility paid $7.5 million last year for an option to buy a 5 percent to 20 percent interest in the new Duke plant.

Duke, meanwhile, signed a letter of intent in July to explore buying a 5 percent to 10 percent interest in the two reactors to be added to the Summer plant. The agreement was for part of state-owned utility Santee Cooper’s stake in the plant, which is co-owned by S.C. Electric & Gas.

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