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Environmental review endorses new Duke nuclear plant

An environmental review of Duke Energy’s proposed Lee nuclear plant 40 miles southwest of Charlotte recommends that federal authorities issue it a construction and operating license.

The environmental impact study is a crucial step toward building the plant near Gaffney, S.C., but far from the last one. Duke has not decided whether to actually build the plant and has pushed its earliest operating date to 2024.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission study concluded that most environmental impacts of the two-reactor nuclear plant would be small, including heavy water withdrawals from the Broad River watershed.

Lee would take 4 percent of the river’s average volume to cool the plant. Nearly 25,000 gallons a minute would evaporate.

The Broad also cools Duke’s Cliffside power plant upstream in North Carolina and, with its tributaries, supplies seven water systems in both states.

“There was a joke going around that by the time it gets to Columbia, it’s going to be the Skinny River,” said Susan Corbett, chair of the S.C. Sierra Club. “Water seems to be a single point of vulnerability to me on the whole process, from the intake to the thermal discharge.”

Once the plant sucks in cooling water, it would return warmer water to the Broad. The NRC review calls the effect of the warmer water minimal, although environmentalists say it can disrupt river ecosystems.

Duke spokesman Rick Rhodes said the utility is confident Lee’s water withdrawals won’t overstress the Broad.

Models leading to that conclusion included the possibility of a drought so severe that it wouldn’t be likely to occur more than once in 1,000 years, he said.

The Lee plant would be built on the site of the partly built Cherokee nuclear plant, which Duke canceled in the early 1980s. Two cooling-water ponds remain from that era, and Duke would build a third pond to supply the plant during droughts.

“I don’t think constructing a third pond is going to reduce the impacts to the river,” said Tom Clements, an anti-nuclear activist for Friends of the Earth in Columbia. “Anybody can see that the river is going to be impacted. The question is going to be how much.”

The NRC will decide whether to license Lee, but South Carolina would have significant say over the plant. Among the state’s oversight duties is to certify that such projects won’t hurt water quality.

The NRC study found that construction of the plant would cause more serious, but still moderate, environmental damage.

About half the 4,000-acre site would be cleared, although much of that is low-quality wildlife habitat, the study said. Traffic would also become heavier in the rural area when construction peaks at 4,600 workers, it said.

The radiation risk to people who live and work near the plant would be small, the study said – less than four millirems a year, compared with the average annual dose most people receive of 311 millirems.

A decision on the federal license is expected in 2016, after a second report evaluates the plant’s design, siting and safety issues and a mandatory hearing is held.

“NRC could move sooner than that,” Rhodes said. “We would love it if they were able to speed it up.”

Duke proposed the plant in 2007 as it looked toward updating its aging fleet of power plants, including retiring many coal-fired units. Since then, the recession has softened demand for electricity, and the dropping price of natural gas has made it a preferred fuel.

Assuming planning forecasts still show a need for the power plant, he said, Duke would likely decide whether to move forward after the federal license is issued. Duke has already spent $348 million in pre-construction costs on Lee, according to a recent filing.

Duke is also considering buying part of Santee Cooper’s new reactor under construction at the Summer nuclear plant near Columbia.

The study is online at http://1.usa.gov/1jN4t5t.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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