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North Texas could be home to nuclear power plant until 2053. Why are residents opposed?

Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant.jpg
Courtesy
/
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
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.

There’s no escaping the fact that Terry McIntire’s family farm sits less than four miles from the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. Every time the Fort Worth resident visits Somervell County to take care of his 96-year-old father, he drives past a warning siren installed near his family cemetery.

“Most people probably don’t even think about it,” McIntire said. “But if there’s an accident, the 10-mile perimeter includes all of Glen Rose and all of our family property. The air would be unsafe to breathe, and probably the land would be uninhabitable forever.”

Comanche Peak’s future in North Texas is also in the air as the plant’s owner, Vistra, petitions the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep reactors online through at least 2053. 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, respectively.

The plant has had a massive presence – both physically and economically – in Somervell County, about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, since construction began on nuclear reactors in 1974. Vistra says Comanche Peak is the county’s largest taxpayer, accounting for more than $30 million in state and local taxes per year and more than 600 full-time employees.

Nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to provide reliable, carbon-free power to a country searching for cleaner sources of electricity, Jim Burke, president and CEO of Vistra, said in an October announcement. (While nuclear energy does not produce carbon dioxide, construction of the plants and the transportation of uranium and nuclear waste generates emissions, researchers have found).

“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,” Burke said. “Our team stands ready to continue a proud tradition of safety, dependability, and operational excellence at Comanche Peak, and we are excited to be filing this application for extension.”

That view isn’t shared by all living in the 50-mile radius of the plant, including Tarrant, Hood and Somervell counties. Several residents have expressed concern over safety measures and the plant’s long-term sustainability amid challenges posed by aging infrastructure, drought and low-level earthquakes.

At a Jan. 17 virtual public meeting hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nearly 100 attendees asked questions about how the commission will evaluate the plant’s environmental impact and shared their experiences with Comanche Peak.

Janet Mattern, a southwest Fort Worth resident living within 50 miles of the plant, said the commission has an obligation to educate the public about the risks of extending the life of the reactors. Mattern also serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County.

Recent reports have stated that when nuclear power plants were initially approved in the ‘80s and ‘90s that the NRC underestimated the risks to public safety at that time,” Mattern said. “We need to make sure that those risks are communicated to the public prior to the renewal of this license.”

Susybelle Gosslee, chair on hazardous waste issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas, asked the NRC to consider how the increasing frequency of drought conditions could lead to more wildfires and limit the availability of water for plant operations. Rita Beving of Dallas urged agency staff to dig into how natural gas drilling in the region could lead to more earthquakes near the plant.

Beving expressed concern that the plant’s safety measures did not account for higher seismic activity, which researchers have connected to deep injection wells and fracking.

“This plant needs further scrutiny and further evaluation,” Beving said. “Even though I know officials have been very pleased with this plant, everyone should be very concerned as this plant ages since some of its components have been around since the 1980s.”

Before the meeting, Vistra spokesperson Meranda Cohn said there is a considerable safety margin between seismic activity the plant is built to handle and any potential seismic activity in the area. All recorded earthquakes in the area have fallen well within that margin, Cohn said.

There is no potential for “toxic runoff” at Comanche Peak, she added. The plant must constantly release water from Squaw Creek Reservoir into the Brazos River, and the water is routinely monitored to ensure it meets state and federal standards, Cohn said.

“Our highest priority is the safety of the public, our people, and our plants,” Cohn wrote. “Comanche Peak is designed to meet the stringent requirements of the NRC, and it meets all codes, standards, and regulations with respect to safe operations and environmental impacts.”

Comanche Peak also received testimonies of support from community leaders, including Glen Rose ISD Superintendent Trig Overbo and Somervell County Judge Danny Chambers. Plant staff have always been good neighbors, Chambers said, and county staff are regularly in contact with Comanche Peak leaders.

Residents with concerns should visit the plant’s visitors’ center and get their questions answered, he added.

“I don’t have anything bad to say because obviously Somervell County wouldn’t be what it is today without the power plant and without what is injected into our community through the workforce, through the financial output,” Chambers said. “There’s no reason for it not to go on because I don’t know how you’d replace what it puts on the grid without it here today.”

Technical issues prevented several people from unmuting their microphones to ask questions or comment over the course of the meeting, which lasted for more than two hours. The commission originally planned two in-person public meetings in Glen Rose on Jan. 10 but moved the session online due to COVID-19 concerns.

Attendees urged commission staff to host an in-person meeting and delay their deadlines to submit comments or apply for a public hearing. Public comments are due by email or mail by Jan. 30, as are requests for public hearings. Instructions to apply for a public hearing are published on The Federal Register.

“I thank you very much for doing this particular meeting online, but even some of these people have not had access to express their comments,” Gosslee, the League of Women Voters of Texas member, said. “There needs to be a public hearing for the people that live close to it and for the people who live many miles away.”

To qualify for a hearing, members of the public must explain why they’re affected by a nuclear facility and the reasons why they believe a proposed action raises environmental or safety questions, according to NRC guidelines. Scott Burnell, a public affairs officer for the NRC who answered questions at the meeting, said people typically have to show proximity to the plant by being located within a 50-mile radius of the reactor.

McIntire, who stands to inherit his family farm in Somervell County, doesn’t expect the efforts of activists to stop the relicensing of the project. But the NRC should exercise more oversight of the plant – and find a permanent storage location for nuclear waste so that it doesn’t stay in Glen Rose, he said.

“The best we can do is hope that it’ll be safer, and there will be better oversight for the next 20 years,” McIntire said.

How to weigh in on Comanche Peak

Public comments on the Comanche Peak environmental impact review can be submitted at regulations.gov under Docket ID: NRC-2022-0183 or by mail to the following address:

Office of Administration
Mailstop: TWFN-7-A60M
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, D.C. 20555-0001

Requests for extensions to the hearing and comment deadlines can be sent to hearing.docket@nrc.gov.

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.