Nuclear Power Industry Wins First Site Approval in 30 Years

WASHINGTON, DC, March 9, 2007 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Thursday approved the first Early Site Permit for a nuclear power plant - demonstrating a new and previously untested licensing process for locating new nuclear plants in the United States. Critics say new nuclear plants are not needed if energy conservation is implemented.

The approval - for Exelon Generation Company's Clinton site, in central Illinois - was hailed by U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman as "a major milestone" in the Bush administration's plan to expand the use of nuclear power.

"NRC approval of the Clinton Early Site Permit represents a major accomplishment in this administration’s effort to address the barriers and stimulate deployment of new nuclear power plants in the United States," Bodman said.

"By demonstrating effectiveness and predictability in the licensing process, utilities will have the information they need to make sound business decisions that can lead to the construction of new nuclear power plants," he said.

The Early Site Permit resolves environmental, site suitability and emergency planning issues with regard to the possible construction and operation of a new nuclear plant next to the Clinton Power Station in Clinton, Illinois. Exelon has not decided to move forward with building a new nuclear plant.

power plant

The Clinton Power Station is located in central Illinois with Bloomington/Normal to the north, Champaign/Urbana to the east, and Decatur to the south. Built on a 14,300-acre site, it began operating in 1987. (Photo © Kirby Vandervort)
The Early Site Permit process was established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, in 1989 for utilities to complete the site and environmental evaluations before a decision is made to build a nuclear plant.

Once issued, the permit is valid for 20 years and can be used in conjunction with a subsequent combined Construction and Operating License application.

"This the last major hurdle in the process. We are very pleased with how the early site permit process has progressed," said Marilyn Kray, Exelon Nuclear vice president of project manager, who has piloted the process for the company.

Exelon is now waiting for the NRC staff to issue the permit, which must occur within 10 days of the commission's vote.

The 20 year permit allows Exelon to "bank" the site for a possible power plant, said Kray, but it does not authorize construction of a new plant. Should the company decide to build a power plant, it would need to apply for a combined operating license.

"Certain conditions would have to fall into place before Exelon would consider building a plant - a workable solution to the spent fuel disposal problem; community acceptance; the right reactor technology; and the economics must be favorable," Kray said.

This Early Site Permit approval is the culmination of a four year, cost shared project between the Department of Energy and the Exelon Corporation, based in Chicago.

Exelon submitted their Early Site Permit application, which includes a Site Safety Analysis Report, an Environmental Report, and an Emergency Plan, to the NRC in September 2003.

The NRC issued the Final Safety Evaluation Report in May 2006, the Final Environmental Impact Statement in July 2006, and the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearings concluded in early November 2006.

In addition to its partnership with Exelon, the Energy Department has partnered with two other companies, Entergy and Dominion Energy, to demonstrate the process.

A decision on the Entergy Grand Gulf Early Site Permit is expected within the month, and later this year the decision on Dominion’s North Anna Early Site Permit is expected.

The NRC vote supports the Energy Department's Nuclear Power 2010 program, a joint government-industry cost shared effort to identify sites for new nuclear power plants; develop and bring to market advanced nuclear plant technologies; evaluate the business case for building new nuclear power plants and; demonstrate untested regulatory processes.


Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy, Water, and Related Agencies about the department's FY’08 budget request (Photo courtesy DOE)
President Bush's Fiscal Year 2008 budget requests $874.2 million, a 38.2 percent increase over the FY'07 request, for theOffice of Nuclear Energy.

Of that request, $114 million has been allocated to complete the remaining Early Site Permit demonstration projects and continue the New Nuclear Plant Licensing Demonstration projects.

Paul Leventhal, the long-time head of the nongovernmental Nuclear Control Institute, NCI, says there is "ample evidence" that "conservation alone could eliminate the need for the existing fleet of nuclear power plants, let alone new ones."

Before establishing NCI, based in Washington, DC, Leventhal held senior staff positions in the U.S. Senate on nuclear power and proliferation issues. He served as co-director of the bipartisan Senate Special Investigation of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident, and helped to draft the 1974 legislation that established the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"The public has yet to be heard from," said Leventhal. "The NRC is going to grant permits at existing sites assuming that these commmunities have already accepted nuclear power plants. If there was an accident, that could change overnight."

He is critical of the NRC's close working relationship with the nuclear industry, saying that the "NRC could be perceived as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Energy Institute," a nuclear industry association.

Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and chief executive officer, Frank "Skip" Bowman, said Thursday, "History will record this day as one of the early milestones in the era of new nuclear power plant construction in the United States. Approval of the Clinton early site permit application by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – the first such siting permit in the agency’s history – is a momentous occurrence."

"Site pre-approval provided through the early site permit process holds the potential to shorten the time required to bring a new nuclear power plant to market," said Bowman.

"As our nation seeks to increase its reliance on nuclear energy to strengthen U.S. energy diversity and security with a reliable electricity source that keeps the air clean, today’s action marks a promising day for a brighter energy future for the American people," he said.

Leventhal said, "The nuclear renaissance is in the eyes of the beholder. The administration has tried to build a solid case for nuclear power based on global warming and electricity needs beyond current capacity." But, in his view, the risks outweigh the benefits.

"I'm not anti-nuclear, and I have taken a neutral position on nuclear power," Leventhal said. "It can be accpetable if it is operated as safely as humanly possible."

"But nuclear power plants in today's security environment should be regarded as strategic targets in the United States with the fullest protection the federal government can provide," Leventhal said. "They should be protected with ground to air missiles integrated into both the military and the Federal Aviation Administration systems with careful command and control systems. There may have to be permanent troops or special federal protection forces."

But Leventhal says the industry opposes the federal government stepping in because it might alarm the public into recognizing that nuclear power plants are vulnerable. "So you have nuclear power plants protected by rent-a-cops."

Energy Secretary Bodman characterizes nuclear power as "clean" and "safe" and says "nuclear power will play an increasingly important role as the demand for electricity grows worldwide."

"Government's role is to create an environment in which clean energy can flourish, and I'm proud to say that we're helping doing just that," said Bodman Thursday.

But Leventhal is not reassured. "There's lots of loosey, goosey stuff that makes plants vulnerable to attack," he said. "The public doesn't want to know, they're in denial."

"We cannot today protect against an attack like 911," Leventhal warned. "If plants are hit in the big metropolitan areas such as Chicago or New York, the effects would be catastrophic, rendering these cities uninhabitable."