UPDATE 1-US groups file suit to block Southern Vogtle reactors

Thu Feb 16, 2012 3:45pm EST

* New Vogtle reactors to cost about $14 billion

* NRC issued Vogtle reactor license last week

* NRC chairman voted against new reactor license

By Scott DiSavino

Feb 16 (Reuters) - Public interest groups filed suit against Southern Co in federal court on Thursday to block the license that U.S. regulators issued last week for the country's first new nuclear reactors in more than 30 years at the Vogtle power plant in Georgia.

Nine groups sued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, alleging that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) violated federal law by issuing the Vogtle license without considering public safety and environmental implications of last year's Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.

The suit asks federal judges to order the NRC to prepare a new environmental impact statement on the proposed reactors. The NRC said it already has conducted a lengthy study that addressed the issues raised in the lawsuit.

Last week, the NRC voted 4-1 to issue Southern a permit to build and operate two units at Vogtle - the first permits issued in the United States since 1978, a year before the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania that cast a pall over the nuclear industry and halted plans for dozens of plants.

But NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko gave opponents some ammunition by casting an extraordinary dissenting vote, citing the Fukushima nuclear disaster that spurred the NRC to review whether existing and new U.S. reactors could withstand natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.

"I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened," said Jaczko, who has close ties to congressional Democrats. "I believe it requires some type of binding commitment that the Fukushima enhancements that are currently projected and currently planned to be made would be made before the operation of the facility."

Southern spokesman Steve Higginbottom told Reuters: "We are confident that the (NRC) fully complied with federal regulatory requirements in approving and issuing the license and see no cause to delay construction."

"Further, the NRC ... already rejected these groups' contentions relating to the NRC's analysis of Fukushima and we do not believe there is valid justification to stay the (license)," Higginbottom said.

"We look forward to working with the (NRC) to incorporate lessons learned from Fukushima into the construction and operation of Vogtle 3 and 4 (the new reactors)."

Higginbottom also noted the NRC's Fukushima 90-day Task Force found the AP1000 already met most of its recommendations.

Southern and partners expect to spend about $14 billion to build the two 1,100-megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 reactors with the units entering service in 2016 and 2017.

The lawsuit was filed by groups including Friends of the Earth, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN).

WARNING OF DELAYS

The public interest groups also said Georgia ratepayers and U.S. taxpayers would be on the hook if Westinghouse and the construction team could not build the reactors on time and on budget. Westinghouse Electric is majority-owned by Japanese multinational Toshiba Corp.

"U.S. taxpayers need to brace themselves for some bad news if they are put on the hook for any ill-considered 'investment' in the Vogtle reactors. Taxpayers and Southern Co's customers are sitting ducks for serial cost overruns and soaring power bills," Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN said in a statement.

In defense of the project, Westinghouse spokesman Scott Shaw said the NRC has already rejected these groups' contention relating to its analysis of Fukushima and there is no valid reason to delay or stay the license for the new reactors.

Shaw also noted Georgia regulators just last week voted 5-0 to approve of Southern Co's Georgia Power unit's spending on the new Vogtle reactors and financing cost of the project were $60 million under budget.

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