North Texans want more say as nuclear plant seeks to continue operating through 2053

dfwnewsa | December 10, 2023 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

North Texans want more say as nuclear plant seeks to continue operating through 2053

Susybelle Gosslee, chair on hazardous waste issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas, speaks to Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff during a public meeting in Glen Rose on Dec. 7, 2023. Gosslee was critical of the agency’s public engagement process. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)
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Crossing the dark parking lot outside the Somervell County Expo Center, Susybelle Gosslee barely could see the ground in front of her. The experience left her feeling “vulnerable” — and concerned about why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t turn on outdoor lights for its Dec. 7 public meeting about the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Glen Rose. 

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That wasn’t her only critique. Earlier in the day, Gosslee and other environmental advocates struggled to log on to a virtual meeting hosted by the commission. Officials apologized for the challenges and vowed to host another online session the week of Dec. 18. 

“That is not transparency, and it’s not good government,” Gosslee, the Dallas-based chair of hazardous waste issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas, said. “I’m concerned because of the lack of access to meetings, and you can see that it wasn’t well-publicized because there is nobody here. That’s an indicator that the job did not get done.”

Gosslee’s criticism comes as Vistra, the owner of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Glen Rose, seeks to keep its reactors online through at least 2053. The plant began operation in 1990. 

The company’s current licenses for two nuclear units, which have the capacity to power 1.2 million homes under normal electricity conditions, expire in 2030 and 2033. Vistra announced its license renewal application in October 2022, citing a desire to bring more “carbon-free electricity” to the electric grid. 

“Renewing the licenses of this plant is critical for grid reliability and our environment and is a benefit to the economy, the local community and our company,” Jim Burke, president and CEO of Vistra, said at the time. 

Comanche Peak will have small environmental impact, federal study finds

As part of the license renewal process, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already heard from dozens of residents living in the plant’s 50-mile radius, including parts of Tarrant, Hood and Somervell counties.

Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, pictured in 2007, sits about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth and adjacent to Glen Rose in Somervell County. The first unit came online in 1990. (Courtesy image | Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Many are supportive of Comanche Peak’s continued operation, citing its economic contributions as Somervell County’s largest taxpayer and an employer of more than 600 full-time staff. At a January public meeting, Glen Rose ISD Superintendent Trig Overbo and Somervell County Judge Danny Chambers were among the plant’s most vocal supporters. Others, including Gosslee, expressed concerns over how the aging plant would handle higher risk of drought, wildfires and earthquake activity.

Since then, Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff have evaluated the environmental impact of running the plant for 20 years after the current licenses expire in 2030 and 2033. The agency issued its draft environmental impact statement in early November, outlining considerations like air quality, land use, water resources, human health and waste management. 

Commission staff determined that Comanche Peak’s continued operation would have only small impacts on the surrounding environment, said Tam Tran, who led the environmental review. The agency defines small impacts as being either undetectable or so minor that they will neither destabilize nor noticeably alter natural resources. 

The review also found that the plant’s operations may affect, but are not likely to negatively impact, protected species such as the golden-cheeked warbler, tricolored bat and monarch butterfly. Fish habitats are not expected to be affected, Tran said.

Comanche Peak representatives at the Dec. 7 public meeting declined to comment, and a Vistra spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about the environmental review. In January, a spokesperson said Vistra follows all federal codes, standards and regulations with respect to safe operations and environmental impact.

Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) Coalition in Austin, said the commission’s review doesn’t give enough consideration to how aging reactors could affect public health. The agency typically doesn’t make significant changes following the publication of its draft review, she said.

“There’s not adequate focus on what does it really mean for another 20 years of operation in terms of the radionuclides that are routinely emitted?” Hadden said. “We’re just talking about day-to-day operations that these materials get into the air and soil and the water and they are radioactive.”

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Stephen Koenick, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission senior project manager, speaks during a public meeting in Glen Rose on Dec. 7, 2023. He apologized for challenges residents faced in trying to access public meetings about the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

New meeting on the horizon, but residents say more action needed

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Members of the public have until Dec. 26 to submit comments on the environmental impact statement via an online portal, mail or public meetings like the one on Dec. 7. The in-person meeting drew two members of the public: Gosslee and a reporter. 

Janet Mattern, who lives in southwest Fort Worth, was among the community members who gained access to the Dec. 7 online meeting. She’s concerned about the environmental impact statement’s lack of detail on how climate change could influence power plant operations, and plans to submit comments on the issue. 

But first, the commission needs to fix its public meeting process and find better ways to reach residents, Mattern said. Many North Texans aren’t aware that Comanche Peak exists, much less its impact on the environment, she said. 

“Do they do anything if the public isn’t there? Do they just assume the public’s not interested because they can’t log in?” she said. “Government is supposed to want us to participate and so it’s kind of hard when little things like technology get in the way. These are the same issues we’ve had at prior meetings.” 

How to submit comment to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The deadline for public comment on the draft environmental impact statement for the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant is Dec. 26.

Members of the public can submit comments through the federal rulemaking website by clicking this link or going to www.regulations.gov and searching for Docket ID NRC-2022-0183.

Comments can also be submitted by mail. Address your comments to Office of Administration, Mail Stop: TWFN–7–A60M, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555–0001, ATTN: Program Management, Announcements and Editing Staff.

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Stephen Koenick, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission senior project manager, apologized to Gosslee for the challenges she and others faced in attending public meetings. Commission spokesman Scott Burnell said the agency is still, to some degree, in the learning stage of effectively holding virtual meetings. 

“We make every effort to have the meetings be accessible and, unfortunately, sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough,” Burnell said. “That wasn’t the kind of meeting we wanted to have because we want to get comments. We take seriously the need to gather public comments.” 

Officials are in the process of setting up another virtual meeting for the week of Dec. 18, shortly before the comment period wraps up. 

Commission staff plan to issue a safety review report in February. The agency expects to finalize the environmental impact statement in April, and a committee will host a final public meeting on the Comanche Peak application that month. A final decision on the license renewal is expected by September. 

Gosslee wants the commission to consider extending its comment periods because of how long it can take for the public to get the message. What happens at Comanche Peak is important because it’s an indicator of how the commission will treat license renewals across the country, she said. 

“I appreciate your efforts. I know you work hard. It doesn’t sound like I appreciate them when I’m so critical,” she said. “But it’s like a good parent. A good parent is critical and demanding of excellence. And that’s what I ask of you.”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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