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Progress Energy, regulators admit not studying part of proposed Levy nuclear site

BRONSON — Opponents of the proposed Levy County nuclear plant argue that neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff nor Progress Energy Florida adequately studied the project's impact on the environment.

During a hearing Wednesday before the Atomic Safety Licensing Board, the commission's staff and the utility may have proved their opponents right.

Under a battery of questions from the three-member board at the Levy County Courthouse, commission staff members and Progress experts admitted they had not performed tests on the area where the utility plans to dig supply wells on the south side of the nuclear plant site.

"I did not look specifically at the south property," Gerry Stirewalt, a commission witness, said during the hearing. "We looked at maps that were done on a regional scale. I didn't survey in detail … the south property."

Progress expert Jeffrey Lehnen gave similar testimony: "The data we don't have is the southern property."

Asked by the board why they didn't perform a comprehensive test on the south side of the site, Lehnen replied, "It seemed like a matter of timing."

Progress wants to build a $24 billion nuclear plant on a 5,000-acre site in rural Levy County.

Approval of the federal operating license has cleared most hurdles but faced a challenge from a group of Floridians who formed the Ecology Party of Florida.

The Ecology Party, along with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Maryland-based environmental group, argues 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.

Progress and the commission staff say the impact on groundwater and the environment in general will be "small." The utility proposes to withdraw 1.6 million gallons a day of groundwater and 80 million gallons a day from the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

The Levy site sits about 8 miles north of Progress' broken Crystal River plant — the utility's sole nuclear reactor in Florida. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's staff released its Final Environmental Impact Study on the Levy site in April, clearing it for nuclear plant construction.

But the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a division of the commission, determined that the Ecology Party made a valid challenge to the commission's findings.

A stream of button-downed, suited lawyers and experts rolled into tiny Bronson, the county seat of Levy County, about 20 miles west of Gainesville. Population: fewer than 1,200.

To some locals, the news of the visitors passing through town for two days of hearings paled in comparison to what they witnessed during the hearing Wednesday.

"There certainly is uncertainty as we state in our testimony," NRC staff member Dan Barnhurst said during the hearing.

"Would it be possible to characterize the level of uncertainty?" asked Alex Karlin, chairman of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. "What we have to decide here is whether this license should be issued."

The board can block Progress from receiving its operating license if the panel determines after this week's hearings that the Final Environmental Impact Study violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Progress could appeal the board's decision to the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission or take corrective action. But both approaches could further delay the plant, which is projected to come online in 2024, eight years after its originally scheduled date.

To Lee McSherry, Wednesday's testimony from the commission's own staff that showed a lack of information was "a fatal flaw."

"The homework has not been done by (Progress) and the agency," said McSherry, a farmer from the nearby town of Archer. "That was obvious."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332.

Progress Energy, regulators admit not studying part of proposed Levy nuclear site 10/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 11:08pm]
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