Progress Energy's plans for its new Levy County nuclear plant hit another potential roadblock Wednesday when an arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that the Green Party of Florida and two other groups can challenge the plant's federal permit.
In a 112-page ruling, the NRC's Atomic Licensing Board found that the Green Party and its allies had successfully raised "certain major issues" about the plant's environmental impact that deserve a full-fledged legal hearing with oral arguments.
One issue: The utility has yet to figure out where it will send the new plant's radioactive waste, and thus may have to store it on site longer than expected.
The board also found that the utility may have underestimated the impact of building the plant in a floodplain. That will require filling in and paving over hundreds of acres of wetlands, which may hurt both the underground aquifer and the Withlacoochee River, not to mention the wildlife species that depend on them, the board found.
And the licensing board said the utility may not have adequately addressed the impact of "salt drift" into the remaining wetlands on the site. The plant will pump 120 million gallons of saltwater a day from the Cross Florida Barge Canal, evaporate a third of it for cooling, and pump the warm, salty remainder into waters near the Big Bend Aquatic Seagrasses Preserve. The question the plant's critics raised is what happens to the vapor from the cooling towers.
The utility has not yet decided how to respond to the ruling. "Progress Energy Florida has received and will review the ruling. We'll soon make a decision on whether to file an appeal," spokesman Tim Leljedal wrote in an e-mail.
The licensing board has not yet scheduled any further oral arguments on the petition by the Green Party of Florida, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the Ecology Party of Florida. If it rules in their favor after those arguments, NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said, the utility "would have to amend their application to satisfy the shortcomings that had been found."
The utility hopes to build its nuclear plant on a 5,000-acre site 4 miles north of the nearest town, Inglis. The company had hoped to start producing power from the plant in 2016.
But on May 1, Progress Energy announced that construction had been delayed 20 months because the NRC would not allow it to begin building anything before all of its site and safety reviews were complete.
Critics have complained about the site the company picked. In many places, the water table on the site is above ground for half the year or longer, according to documents the company filed with the NRC. Most of the site lies in the 100-year floodplain, meaning after heavy rain, it is likely to remain inundated for some time.
"Any hurricane event would inundate the vicinity of the plant with storm surge," the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council noted in a report. "On-site the plant and associated facilities may be especially vulnerable to flood hazard."
The utility's plans call for wiping out about 765 acres of wetlands, according to a public notice posted in May by the agency that issues federal wetland permits, the Army Corps of Engineers.
Although the plant won't start producing power until March 2018 at the earliest, the customers are already paying for its construction. In January, customers saw a monthly increase of $12.11 per 1,000 kilowatt hours to pay for nuclear projects, sparking such an uproar that the utility then lowered its rates, reducing the monthly nuclear charge to $4.31 per 1,000 kilowatt hours.