The Levy County nuclear plant project moved a step closer to securing its operating license on Tuesday after a three-judge panel ruled against an environmental challenge.
Opponents of the proposed nuclear project had argued that the environmental impact statement for the proposed reactor did not fully account for the potential harm the power plant's water use would have on the aquifer.
The panel disagreed.
In a 145-page decision, the judges of the federal Atomic Safety Licensing Board rejected the arguments, saying that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "has carried its burden of demonstrating that its (environmental impact statement) complies with the National Environmental Policy Act."
"We're very pleased with the ruling today," said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman of Duke Energy, which would run the plant. "We didn't expect anything different. We're going to continue pushing forward to get the (operating) license."
The next step: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is working to resolve issues related to the disposal of nuclear waste before it issues any new operating licenses. That process is expected to be completed in about a year and a half.
After that, the commission is expected to vote on the license for the Levy County project, now expected by the end of 2014. Duke Energy has said it will decide whether to go ahead and build the $24.7 billion plant after it gets the operating license.
The judges' decision Tuesday angered opponents of the Levy project, which would include two reactors on a 5,000-acre tract. While Duke decides whether to build the plant, it's collecting $1.5 billion from customers for planning and development.
The panel of judges "based its decision on unfulfilled promises by the state of Florida to monitor the wetlands during operation and correct the impacts if they occur," said Diane Curran, a lawyer representing opponents of the project. "Yet again, the government is punting responsibility for harm to the environment to our children and grandchildren."
Cara Campbell, chairwoman of the Florida Ecology Party, which brought the environmental challenge, said she was "flabbergasted" at the judges' decision. Campbell's group argued that the project threatens to deplete groundwater to levels that could lead to devastating wildfires; induce sinkhole activity; lower water levels in wetlands, lakes and streams; and cause the loss of trees and wildlife, among other things. In particular, the group says drawing the groundwater would harm the Big King and Little King springs, which provide water for manatees.
In addition, using 80 million gallons of water from the Cross Florida Barge Canal will draw saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico as far as 9 miles inland up to the reactor site for cooling towers, endangering freshwater habitats.
Campbell wondered whether pressure was exerted on the board to ignore the potential impact.
"This is why people don't get involved in civic engagement," Campbell said. "I could vomit. The ball is in the court of the people … to get off their butts and raise hell about paying for that nuclear plant that may never get built."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.