New nukes: Dominion plans cause reaction

Have you heard about the new nuclear power plants Dominion has planned for Louisa County? No? Well, you're not alone, and a new group is aiming to make sure the word gets out.

"It's being shoved down our throats," says Elena Day, a member of the newly formed People's Alliance for Clean Energy, which is fighting Dominion's plans by publicizing the details and organizing public opposition.

Back in September, Dominion applied to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an early site permit that would grant the energy conglomerate 20 years to pursue the proposed two– or more– new plants. The plan calls for as much as an extra 8,000 megawatt output– equivalent to eight new nuclear power plants. It would mark a 480 percent expansion over existing output, and, if built, would be America's first new nuclear plant completed since 1973. The 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island caused the cancellation of various other planned nuclear plants.

Day says there was no real opportunity for public discussion of the North Anna issue. The site plan application– part of a set of regulations issued in the 1990s by NRC to govern nuclear plant construction– was posted on the NRC's website in November. Day says the NRC held a "poorly attended" meeting in Louisa County on December 8 to announce the plan. At that meeting, the NRC gave the public until January 2 to organize opposition.

Day says that's not enough time.

Fortunately, she says, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a North Carolina-based watchdog agency, was alerted to the development. Joined by D.C.-based Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, and the Nuclear Information Resource Service, the League filed a formal petition with the NRC by the January deadline in an attempt to squelch approval of the early site permit.

Day, whose husband, Donal Day, is a nuclear physicist and a member of Public Citizen, hopes to generate enough public outcry to dash Dominion's hopes permanently.

She says Dominion's claims that nuclear energy is environmentally preferable to coal burning are bunk.

"Substituting no greenhouse gases for an extreme risk of radiation," says Elena Day, "doesn't satisfy clean energy goals."

Furthermore, she says, the spent fuel rods pose a health and environmental risk that will last for generations. She's particularly horrified by a federal plan to transport thousands of "hot" spent fuel rods to Nevada to be buried at Yucca Mountain.

"We are going to be facing this," says Day, "100, 200 years from now."

Louis Zenner, spokesman for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, says health risks of nuclear plants have been documented, including a study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology.

Infant mortality rates in households near plants spike when a plant opens and decline when that plant closes, he says. Cancer rates, he adds, follow the same pattern.

But Dominion spokesman Rick Zuercher says Day's and Zenner's fears are unfounded­ and based on faulty research.

"The health risks are minimal," he insists, citing articles in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune that point to flaws in some of the studies that produced those risk reports. "We do [water] sampling in and around the station; we have to demonstrate that there is no negative environmental impact," he says.

Zuercher also says Dominion's plant at North Anna, the first half of which opened in 1978 and the second half in 1980, have always received top ratings from the government.

Though he acknowledges the "vessel heads" that prevent radioactive leakage were replaced last year after corrosion was discovered at Ohio's Davis Besse reactor, he denies it was the scare that Day and other Alliance members portray.

"It was no real issue," he says. "It was a condition we did not want to continue."

Zuercher says Dominion upgraded the vessel head caps with crack-resistant material, and he says the situation demonstrates his company's responsibility.

"We're proactive," says Zuercher. "If something requires fixing, we fix it."

Public Citizen's Brendan Hoffman says no amount of fixing can make nuclear plants safe.

"The inherent risks to the public," he says, "outweigh any benefits."

Nuclear opponents would like to see alternate forms of energy developed.

"There's so little money for research and development for alternate sources of energy," says Elena Day.

Dominion's Zuercher says that his company has explored alternate energy sources. He cites a solar project Dominion worked on about a decade ago. "This part of the country," he explains, "is not that great for solar."

But while the power company and the watchdogs disagree about almost everything, there is at least one thing on which they concur: The government wants more nuclear plants.

This is cause for celebration at Dominion, perhaps. But for Zenner and other nuclear opponents, it's a source of serious concern. Both Zenner and Hoffman say the NRC, which should be a neutral force, is funded by the very utilities it regulates: power companies. They wonder whether the Commission can truly remain neutral in that situation.

"It's like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," says Zenner. "If power companies say, 'This is what we want,' the staff of the NRC say, 'Yeah, this is what we want too.' Their positions are virtually identical."

But NRC spokesman Roger Hannah disputes that claim.

"We have a large technical staff of experienced professionals," he insists, "who look at issues strictly based on safety."

As for the issue of funding, Hannah says the NRC does get its funds from nuclear plant proceeds­ such as the fees NRC charges for plant inspections-­ but he says the money goes into the federal treasury to be doled out by Congress.

"It's much like the Federal Aviation Industry," says Hannah.

Despite his concerns about NRC neutrality, Zenner says he believes the intervention his organization filed has a fighting chance, especially if they can rally public support.

"People are dying around these plants, and they are our most vulnerable citizens," he says. "Nuclear power is an invisible threat to health and safety. There are much better ways to heat and power our homes than splitting the atom."

From left, Michael and Catherine Johnson, Abhaya Thiele, and Elena Day protest in front of a Dominion Power truck.