Southern Co. Nuclear Plant Plan Upheld by Appeals Court

Opponents of Southern Co.’s plan to build two nuclear reactors in Georgia failed to persuade a federal appeals court to revoke the license and reactor-design certification granted by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington today rejected arguments by nine environmental groups that the commission hadn’t fully considered the lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power-plant disaster before approving the $14 billion project at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant.

“NRC thoroughly analyzed the environmental consequences of severe accidents for Vogtle,” U.S. Circuit Judge Harry Edwards wrote in the decision.

The environmental groups sued after the commission last year denied their request to delay construction. The regulator ruled that the opponents failed to show that building the new units at the Vogtle plant, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) from Atlanta, would irreparably harm the environment.

The alleged environmental impacts of building the reactors, as opposed to operating them, aren’t related to the lessons learned from the Fukushima events, which were caused by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the commission said in its April 16, 2012, order.

Chairman’s Opposition

Then-NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko opposed licenses for the Southern units because the company hadn’t been asked to make upgrades that may be required in the U.S. after Fukushima.

“I simply cannot ignore what happened at Fukushima,” he said in a statement after the 4-1 vote on Feb. 9, 2012. Two months later, he voted with his colleagues to allow the construction at Vogtle to go forward.

Edwards said Jaczko didn’t contend that there were any shortcomings of the Vogtle project or need for review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Jeannice Hall, a spokeswoman for Southern Co., said the company is pleased with the decision.

“We look forward to working with NRC to incorporate lessons learned from Fukushima into construction and operation of Vogtle 3 and 4,” Hall said in an e-mail.

The NRC declined to comment on the court’s ruling, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said in a phone interview. The agency continues to monitor the construction of reactors by Southern Co. in Georgia and Scana Corp. in South Carolina “to ensure they’re meeting all the relevant requirements,” he said.

Challenging Groups

The environmental groups that brought the challenge include the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Friends of the Earth Inc. and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Mindy Goldstein, director for the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta and an attorney for the groups, said her clients were considering whether to ask the full appeals court to consider the case.

“This decision today allows the NRC to kick the can down road and allows them to ignore this task force report” calling for an upgrade of safety regulations, Goldstein said in an interview.

The Georgia reactors, the first U.S. nuclear construction licensed since the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in 1979, were forecast to lead to a resurgence of the U.S. nuclear industry.

The renaissance fizzled as a wave of cheap natural gas, government-subsidized wind and solar energy and falling consumer demand have challenged the economics of nuclear monoliths built to operate for 60 years or more.

Duke Energy Corp., the largest U.S. power company by market value, earlier this month suspended plans to build twin nuclear units on its Harris site in Wake County, North Carolina, citing “slower growth” in electricity consumption.

The cases are Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 12-1106, 12-1151, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).

(Updates with Southern Co. comment in ninth paragraph.)
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