Progress Energy's proposed nuclear power plant near Crystal River has cleared an early key hurdle.
In the draft of a massive new report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's staff concludes that the project's impacts on the environment would be small to moderate.
As a result, the NRC's staff recommends that the agency issue Progress Energy the construction permit and operating license it needs to build the plant on 3,100 acres in Levy County.
"This is an important milestone, but there is much more work remaining," Progress Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said Monday.
An opponent of the project said the recommendation was disappointing, but not necessarily surprising.
"The NRC is in the business of approving nuclear plants," said Cara Campbell, chairwoman of the Ecology Party of Florida. "They are not in the business of protecting the environment."
The NRC's findings are contained in a two-volume draft of a statement focusing on the project's environmental impacts. The entire statement includes nearly 1,500 pages of data, charts and analysis.
The public has 75 days to comment on the draft environmental impact statement, which is not expected to become final for at least a year.
Once the environmental impact statement is made final, the project will head to a mandatory public hearing.
At that hearing, the Ecology Party of Florida and two other groups have won the opportunity to present oral arguments on several environmental issues.
In addition to the environmental analysis, federal regulators also will conduct a separate but parallel review of safety plans for the project, which would have two 1,100-megawatt Westinghouse reactors.
If the reviews stay on schedule, Progress Energy has said it would expect the NRC to issue the plant a license in late 2012. At that time, the utility would look again at the project and its schedule before making a decision to go ahead.
Progress Energy estimates the plant's cost, including land, transmission lines, fuel and financing, at $17.2 billion to $22.5 billion. Last year, Progress Energy received approval to begin charging customers for the plant's development.
Consequently, Progress Energy customers pay $6.78 per 1,000 kilowatt hours per month to cover the costs of the Levy plant. (An additional 21-cent charge pays for upgrades at the company's Crystal River nuclear plant, but not for repairing a wall in the containment building that was discovered to be cracked).
In the report, the NRC staff anticipated there would be moderate impacts — those that are noticeable, but not destabilizing — on:
• Land use as a result of the construction of transmission lines to connect the new plant to the electrical grid.
• The quality of water in streams, lakes and rivers due to discharges from the Levy County plant and Progress Energy's other plants in the area.
• Land-based resources due to habit fragmentation, impacts on important species and the loss of wetlands. The project would destroy about 765 acres of wetlands, according to the analysis.
The NRC staff anticipated that impacts on air quality would be small to moderate.
Small impacts — those that couldn't be detected or wouldn't noticeably alter any important attribute of a resource — would be expected for underground water quality and aquatic ecosystems, according to the NRC's analysis.
"It's amazing to me that they would say small impact; Florida is just so starved for water at this point," Campbell said. She added that a hydroecologist working with the Ecology Party has concluded that the model used for the water assessments on the project is "wholly inadequate."
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.