Nuclear energy regulators go through motions of a public meeting. Their heart isn’t in it
Dallas Morning News
Watchdog Dave Lieber attends a public meeting on the future of Comanche Peak nuclear power plant.
GLEN ROSE — A few hours before a public hearing on whether to renew the operating licenses of Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, I drove out for the first time to see the twin domes that are supposed to protect us in case of a radiation release.
Unit 1 came online in 1990 and Unit 2 came on in 1993. From the outside they look a bit old and weather-beaten. But their importance to the shaky Texas electric grid cannot be ignored.
We need electricity from every possible source. But when it comes to nuclear power, potential disasters are always lurking. The plant is 50 miles from downtown Fort Worth and 80 miles from downtown Dallas.
Owner Vistra Corp. is applying for license renewals. Unit 1′s license runs out in 2030 and Unit 2′s license expires in 2033.
The renewals, if approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would extend their life all the way to 2050 and 2053.
If the licenses are denied, the plants would be dismantled, a process called “decommissioning.”
Some company executives and workers spoke briefly in praise of the plant. Several mentioned the plant’s safety record and reliability, especially during the 2021 February freezeout when it continued working while other electricity generators failed.
The NRC is one of our most important government agencies. Its mission is to power us up while also protecting us.
But like most public agencies, it is remote from the public. The two most public-facing actions occur when you file an open records request and when you attend and speak at an NRC public meeting.
On both fronts, the NRC appears to have its troubles.
I previously reported my test of NRC’s accountability when I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn about a June 2021 fire at Comanche Peak that was not very serious, although it did shut down the plant for nearly two weeks. I wasn’t so much interested in the fire as I was in the handling of my FOIA request. How accountable and forthright would the all-important NRC be?
The NRC muffed it.
A year went by with no response. When I finally complained, some records arrived along with an apology.
Public meetings can be a challenge, too. Required by law during the license renewal process, the one I attended in Glen Rose felt as if NRC officials were going through the motions.
A two-hour meeting was scheduled, but the first 35 minutes were taken up showing a mundane NRC slide show. A parade of local elected officials followed with each praising the plant operators for their contribution to the local tax base.
Finally, LaVonne Cockerell of Fort Worth, sitting in the audience, couldn’t take it anymore. She interrupted and spoke in an exasperated tone: “Thirty-five minutes, and we haven’t gotten a chance to talk,” she complained.
Then, mixed in with plant employees who spoke glowingly (yes, pun intended) about the safety and care that goes into the plant’s daily operations, the critics finally got their chance.
In a room that had about 80 people — with some of them Vistra employees — more than a dozen critics stood to speak.
They raised valid questions that went unanswered.
How is the air and water affected?
What about onsite waste storage?
How about possible earthquake activity?
What about the impact of major droughts?
What about the plant’s vulnerability to terrorism?
But there was another complaint that kept coming up.
Speaker after speaker complained that the notice of the public meeting was not properly handled. Too few people knew about it. It’s clear that the NRC didn’t work on overdrive to publicize it.
NRC officials say they are satisfying public meeting requirements. They pointed out that this was their second recent public meeting. An in-person meeting scheduled for January was canceled for COVID-19 reasons, they said. The meeting was held virtually later last month. But several speakers said they couldn’t connect online and they requested a do-over.
Several speakers said that if the word had been spread more effectively more area residents would have attended.
“This affects the people who live in Dallas-Fort Worth,” Karen Hadden of Austin told me.
“This has not been an open process,” she said. “I think the local community does not know what’s going on.”
“So many people would be affected by any accidents,” said Susybelle L. Gosslee. “Transparency and accountability are key elements of this government, and they make democracy work.”
Let’s review the stakes here. If there were an accident, those in the 10-mile radius zone would be most affected.
The plant’s emergency evacuation guidelines, which I’ve studied in the past, state that people in the 10-mile zone should flee.
It states, “Keep your car’s vents and windows closed while driving within 10 miles of the power plant. If you use your car air conditioning, set it on ‘inside’ or ‘maximum’ so it does not pull in outside air.”
“Residents are also advised to communicate with neighbors personally rather than clogging phone lines,” it says.
The plan says that livestock should be sheltered. “Leave them with food and water.” Pets are not permitted at “reception centers” outside the evacuation zone.
How big is that zone? Likely, it depends on which way the wind is blowing.
Before I sign off on this for now, I want to share a new word I learned while attending the meeting.
Embrittlement is a scientific term that refers to the weakening of a power plant through usage over time.
Comanche Peak was supposedly built with an intended 40-year life span.
With their licenses renewed they’d keep generating electricity until the 2050s.
That’s why public feedback is crucial. These meetings should be done not because the NRC has to, but because it wants to.
Even though the law doesn’t require it, the NRC should hold more public meetings in the most affected, highly-populated areas, particularly southwestern Tarrant County.
Put on a good public face. Don’t hide news of your meetings. Face the embrittlement questions head on.
In the Know
As of now, no further Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meetings are scheduled for Comanche Peak’s license renewal. But the NRC is accepting public comments in writing until March 13.
By mail: Office of Administration
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, D.C. 20555-0001
By Internet: Go to www.regulations.gov and search for Docket ID: NRC-2022-0183. By email, use ComanchePeakEIS@nrc.gov.
Note that your comments will be made public, so withhold phone numbers or email addresses if you want to protect your privacy
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