by Kathiann M. Kowalski, Energy News Network

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel will hear arguments Tuesday about whether two citizen groups can challenge Energy Harbor’s application to extend the life of Ohio’s Perry nuclear plant through 2046.

The Ohio Nuclear-Free Network and Beyond Nuclear say they are worried about potential radioactive leaks into Lake Erie, as well earthquake risks that were not understood four decades ago when the plant was originally licensed. They also question whether the company adequately considered whether relicensing is necessary.

Both Energy Harbor and the NRC staff oppose the groups’ petition to intervene, which would give the anti-nuclear advocates a formal role as parties in the case, with the right to submit and challenge evidence at a hearing.

“The idea of having an adversarial proceeding is for us at least to have a chance to scrutinize the evidence more closely than the NRC staff might,” said Terry Lodge, an attorney in Toledo who represents the Ohio Nuclear-Free Network and Beyond Nuclear in the case.

However, it’s not unusual for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s staff to seek to limit interventions, according to national experts on nuclear licensing cases.

In general, “the ways they construct their rules on hearings and standards are very restrictive,” said Diane Curran, an attorney who works on nuclear power plant issues and is not involved in the case. And companies that want to keep their plants running have had a winning track record for getting license renewals granted.

Remaining issues

The environmental groups’ reply brief said they plan to withdraw their contentions about earthquake risks, which the NRC staff argued can be “addressed by ongoing regulatory processes.” Although new information came to light after the plant began operating, those risks presumably existed when the plant was first licensed. So, the staff said, they don’t belong in a relicensing case. 

Beyond Nuclear and the Ohio Nuclear-Free Network argue that neither the renewal application nor its environmental report address the impacts of radioactive tritium or other radionuclides that can leak from the plant, including how they might interact with other contaminants in Lake Erie. Energy Harbor’s environmental report filed with its application notes that tritium was found in groundwater wells near the site in 2020 and 2021. The groups’ reply said they provided enough information to show there is an issue, whose merits would be decided later based on evidence at a hearing.

The groups also argued that Energy Harbor’s environmental report exaggerated the potential adverse consequences if the plant shuts down, and that understanding the actual consequences matters when it comes to considering alternatives that could avoid or mitigate environmental risks posed by the plant.

It’s unclear how much consideration the groups’ concerns will get if their petition to intervene is denied.

“The NRC’s technical review process includes multiple opportunities for the community near a plant to provide input on potential environmental impacts of license renewal,” said Scott Burnell, a public affairs officer at the commission. “The NRC technical staff consider this input to ensure our review appropriately addresses matters under the agency’s jurisdiction.”

But that consideration would not take place in the context of a public hearing, Lodge said. And there’s no guarantee about how deeply the staff would consider different issues in its back-and-forth communications with Energy Harbor. It’s “very optional,” he said.

And while the commission must publish its proposed environmental impact statement for public comment, its rules also make it hard to raise issues after the fact. The NRC often treats various issues as “generic,” even though the law calls for a site-specific consideration, Lodge said.

“The NRC has basically constructed the rules around relicensing to make them a very pro forma process,” said Tim Judson, executive director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Generally, the main focus is on whether a company has an adequate “aging management program, to be able to monitor and repair things as needed.”

Connie Kline, a member of the Ohio Nuclear-Free Network, said she was surprised that the NRC staff was “so virulent” in opposing the groups’ participation in the case and basically echoing Energy Harbor’s points. From her perspective, that’s worrisome, because the agency’s job is to regulate industry in order to protect the public.

“We call NRC, in many respects, a lap dog and not a watchdog,” Kline said.

Members of the public may listen to but not comment during the oral argument and prehearing on Jan. 30. A Jan. 22 notice from the NRC provided the dial-in number, but did not state the time to call. A separate Jan. 4 order says the proceeding will start at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time.

This article first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

This post appeared first on Power Engineering.