Nuclear plants hit milestone

An effort to build two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear power station has won environmental clearance.

COLUMBIA -- Efforts to build two nuclear reactors northwest of Columbia won an important victory this week, with a report concluding that the project won't take a substantial toll on the environment.

Two federal agencies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, issued their final environmental impact statement for the expansion of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s V.C. Summer nuclear power station in Fairfield County.

"It doesn't say there are no impacts, but in the overall analysis, there are no impacts so large they would preclude the NRC from approving the project," NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.

The NRC could issue licenses for the plant expansion as early as next year.

The design for the reactor still needs approval, and the NRC must consider the findings of a safety evaluation report before making a decision.

"The bottom line is all those things are going to require the remainder of the year to work through," Burnell said. "We won't see a final agency decision on the Summer application until at least the end of the year."

Still, Burnell said issuance of the environmental impact statement is a major milestone.

Such reports are exhaustive reviews of how development projects affect an array of ecological impacts, including those on rivers, wetlands, air quality and groundwater. Such reports can delay projects by years, so having one completed is significant.

The NRC issued a draft environmental impact statement in April of last year and held a public meeting the following month.

The reactors are part of a $9.8 billion joint project by Cayce-based SCE&G and Santee Cooper of Moncks Corner.

They are scheduled to come online in 2016 and 2019.

SCE&G expects the final safety evaluation report to be done this summer. That examines the safety and emergency preparedness part of the new nuclear reactors.

Anti-nuclear activists oppose the expansion, saying two new nuclear plants could harm the environment.

They have raised concerns recently in light of the tsunami-driven radiation leak in Japan, arguing that SCE&G and other utilities need to slow down their push for nuclear expansion as they learn lessons from the Asian nuclear disaster.

Company officials said that the existing and future plants won't hurt the environment or compromise public safety.