An N.C. environmental group challenging the construction of Duke Energy's planned new nuclear power plant 50 miles southwest of Charlotte argued part of its case before a federal panel Wednesday.
The Ashe County-based Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has filed 10 arguments against the plant, ranging from its use of Broad River water to its ability to survive the impact of a crashing airplane.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the judicial arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will decide by Sept. 22 whether to hold formal hearings on those arguments.
The outcome of those hearings, if held, could influence the NRC's upcoming decision on a license allowing Duke to build and run the plant. Lee would be the first nuclear plant Duke has completed since the mid-1980s.
Duke and NRC staff say none of Blue Ridge's arguments should lead to formal hearings. They say the group's claims are vague, lack factual bases or are outside the scope of the licensing process.
A three-judge panel of the licensing board came to Gaffney on Wednesday to discuss four of Blue Ridge's arguments:
The NRC has not fully certified the reactor design Duke has chosen for the plant. The Westinghouse AP1000 is a generic design that may be used in any number of nuclear plants, saving time in the licensing process.
Judge Nicholas Trikouros challenged Blue Ridge official Louis Zeller's argument. “Ninety-five percent of the design of this (reactor) is set in concrete, so to speak,” he said.
Duke hasn't fully analyzed the ability of the Broad River to supply millions of gallons a day of cooling water to the plant, especially if climate change increases water temperatures and decreases rainfall.
Duke's lawyers called Blue Ridge's pessimistic scenario “sheer speculation,” adding that the group cited no expert opinions. NRC staff said they don't yet know to what extent climate change will be addressed in their environmental analyses of the proposed plant.
Duke hasn't proven the Lee plant could withstand an earthquake of the severity that heavily damaged Charleston, S.C., in 1886.
The utility countered that it filed 200 pages of seismic analyses with its license application. Blue Ridge failed to cite by name any expert in its contention, Duke added.
Consumption of uranium for nuclear fuel has outpaced worldwide production, and prices have risen sharply, making future supplies “shaky.”
Duke said the same experts Blue Ridge cited actually predict an adequate supply of uranium for more than 80 years.