Nuclear plant plans draw out proponents, opponents

MATAGORDA COUNTY, TEXAS - Federal approval of the first new nuclear reactors in nearly 30 years sparked debate among local environmental groups.

NRG Energy Inc. and the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company filed an application for two new reactors at the Matagorda County site.

No applications have been made since 1978, the year before the disastrous Three-Mile Island core meltdown in Pennsylvania.

But David Knox, spokesperson for NRG Energy, believes the new reactors are a step in the right direction for the environment, call it an "extremely, extremely clean power generation," lauding it for its lack of pollutants. "Nuclear power is a tremendous base load source of energy that produces no emissions," he said. The world faces an energy crisis, he said, and it's time to look to alternative generation methods.

"You cannot look at trying to meet America and the world's energy needs and not look at nuclear power," Knox said. "It doesn't put greenhouse gases in the air, it doesn't put the other emissions in the air that are associated with other generation." But some groups fear nuclear plants could bring disastrous environmental results.

Nuclear plants proponents fail to note that pre-production steps affect the environment, said Ken Kramer, state director for Texas' Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Mining uranium, a key element in energy production, produces carbon emissions and could affect an area's groundwater, he said. "There are issues at the front and back ends of production," he said.

"And at the back end you have to look at waste disposal." Nuclear plants produce a radioactive waste called spent fuel, said Edward Conaway, a spokesman for STP, but store the matter on-site. The product, which is radioactive waste, is kept in steel-lined pools under 40 feet of water, he said, which sit in fortress-like buildings.

Concrete walls surrounding the pools are reinforced with steel and are 5 to 7 feet thick, he said. "They can withstand a category 5 hurricane, tornadoes, earthquakes and the impact of a fully fueled airliner," Conaway said. But what you see isn't always what you get, said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for GreenPeace. He said invisible pollutants are a cause for concern.

"The industry likes to claim that they're clean and green and they can get away with that because the pollution they emit is invisible," he said. "Their poison happens to be radiation instead of CO2." Every plant aspect is closely monitored, from air circulating through the buildings to the people that leave, Knox said.

"We know exactly what is leaving the plant, and we really have no effect on the environment," he said. "In fact, the South Texas plant is a wildlife preserve. It has a wealth of wildlife, which is something we take great pride in." Conaway said he remains excited about the oncoming project.

The first new unit is expected to go online by 2014 or 2015, with the second one following 18 to 36 months later. And he maintains that the reactors will not negatively affect Bay City's surroundings.

"There have been none from units one and two during the almost 20 years they have been in operation," he said.

"We certainly will continue with the safe and reliable operations for those units and, of course, for the new ones."


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