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New nuclear reactor at Berwick?

PPL considering options to expand nuclear power production at Berwick

PPL eyeing new reactor at Susquehanna plant

By Sam Kennedy and Kurt Blumenau Of The Morning Call

Joining an industrywide push to move beyond a quarter-century of paralysis, PPL Corp. has taken preliminary steps toward building another nuclear reactor about 75 miles northwest of the Lehigh Valley.

The Allentown energy company announced Wednesday that it has sent a letter informing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission it might apply for a license for a third reactor at the Susquehanna nuclear power plant.

Though a simple formality, the action is freighted with broad significance. PPL's application would be the first from Pennsylvania since the state became, with the meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island power plant, the place where the nation's rapid nuclear expansion came to a sudden halt. That close call with disaster outside Harrisburg in 1979 undercut political support for nuclear power nationwide. At least one state, California, went so far as to ban construction of nuclear plants.

The resulting fear persists today. In response to PPL's Susquehanna proposal, Jeff Schmidt, director of the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter, raised the twin specters of accident and terrorist attack.

''Every reactor is a potential dirty bomb, if you will, of radioactive material,'' he said. ''You're creating a new target for terrorists. … We do not think it is in the public interest to build another dangerous power plant.''

Plans for nuclear plants that weren't already approved at the time of Three Mile Island were shelved. In their place, natural gas and coal-fired power plants have proliferated.

But in recent years, as the price of fossil fuel has risen and the full extent of its environmental costs has become clear, there has been a resurgence of support for nuclear energy, especially within the energy industry itself. Nuclear energy, unlike oil, natural gas and coal, doesn't release global-warming pollutants into the atmosphere, though it does create highly toxic, enduring radioactive waste.

In a news release Wednesday, PPL Chief Executive Officer James Miller said, ''Given the growing concerns regarding climate change around the world and the growing need for power plants, … it absolutely makes sense to create this valuable option.''

PPL's Susquehanna plant is in Salem Township, Luzerne County, near Berwick. The Lehigh Valley is outside the 50-mile radius considered most at risk to radioactive contamination in the event of a problem.  [LAN ed note: for your reference, see image for 50 mile radius circle centered on Berwick imposed on PA map.]

In its current two-reactor configuration, the plant is already PPL's biggest generator. It puts out 2,360 megawatts -- enough to power 2 million homes -- of PPL's 11,000 megawatts of capacity nationwide.

Since 1999, the used uranium has been stored in huge steel containers, which are locked inside concrete bunkers on plant grounds.

Building a third reactor would be a major undertaking, financially and otherwise. Construction would cost in the billions of dollars. Just the work involved in the licensing phase would cost about $70 million, most of which would be incurred by the end of 2008, PPL said.

Transmitting electricity generated by the new reactor could also require erecting high-tension power lines -- itself a highly contentious issue that can involve confiscation of private property rights through eminent domain. Already PPL has asked PJM Interconnection, the company that controls the region's transmission system, to study the matter.

PPL's letter to the NRC is the 20th such notification of nuclear plans the agency has received since 2005. Like the Susquehanna proposal, most involve building reactors at existing nuclear plants.

The letter does not mean PPL has actually decided to build another reactor, according to the company. Rather, it is a move to preserve that option for the future.

''Probably the best way to put it is, PPL is saving a space in line,'' NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. ''The agency has only a finite number of resources. And the scheduling of those resources already goes out a number of years.''

Other options under consideration by PPL include acquisition or construction of coal, natural gas and hydroelectric facilities, CEO Miller said. ''This effort is just one element of the company's comprehensive plan.''

Despite the groundswell of renewed interest in nuclear power throughout the energy industry, opposition among many environmental groups remains fierce.

Members of Lepoco, a social action group based in Bethlehem with about 500 members, protested at the Susquehanna plant in the early 1980s, around the time it opened.

Lepoco's Nancy Tate said Wednesday it's too early to tell whether PPL's expansion plans would lead to public protests. But Tate, who was among the protesters in the early '80s, said PPL's plan raises clear concerns.

Nuclear power ''leaves behind huge problems that haven't been addressed,'' she said. ''We don't need to be creating more nuclear waste.''

Nuclear opponents such as PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental group with 15,000 members, also believe the money needed to build a nuclear reactor could be better spent developing other forms of energy.

''Every dollar that's going into nuclear power is a dollar that could be going into truly renewable sources of power, such as wind or solar,'' said Nathan Willcox, a Philadelphia-based energy and clean air advocate for PennEnvironment.

PPL's Susquehanna proposal would have no immediate impact on rates. The expense of the project, in Pennsylvania's deregulated electricity industry, would by borne by private financing, not ratepayers.

The earliest a new reactor could come online would be 2015.
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