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Environmental intervenors vow to appeal NRC approval of Fermi 3 to federal courts

NRC file photo showing Fermi 2. Fermi 3 would be built immediately adjacent to it.On Feb. 4, the four U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners (there is currently an empty seat on the five-member Commission) held a "mandatory, uncontested hearing" on DTE's proposed new Fermi 3 atomic reactor.

The day-long hearing -- a self-congratulatory, rubberstamp formality -- marks one of the very final hurdles DTE (formerly Detroit Edison) must clear before NRC approves Fermi 3's combined Construction and Operating License Application (COLA).

Over 200 NRC staff and nuclear industry represenatives (including from reactor vendor, General Electric-Hitachi, as well as Dominion Nuclear, which wants to build an identical reactor at its North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia) were in attendance. Beyond Nuclear attended the hearing in person, while many concerned citizens from Michigan and beyond observed the live Webcast.

An archived Webcast of the NRC Commissioners' hearing is available, as are the hearing agenda and presentations.

DTE proposes to build the world's first 1,550 Megawatt-electric General Electric-Hitachi so-called "Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor" (ESBWR) at its Fermi nuclear power plant in Frenchtown Township, Michigan, on the Lake Erie shoreline. Fermi is 25 miles south of Detroit, near Monroe.

Beyond Nuclear and allies (Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination, Citizens Environment Alliance of S.W. Ontario, Don't Waste MI, and Sierra Club Michigan Chapter) have vowed to appeal NRC's license approval to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on multiple fronts: violations of NRC's quality assurance (QA) regulations, and the NRC's exclusion of both the proposed new transmission corridor, as well as high-level radioactive waste that would be generated and stored, from NRC's Environmental Impact Statement. The coalition, represented by Toledo attorney Terry Lodge, first intervened against Fermi 3 on March 9, 2009. In the past six years, the coalition has filed around three-dozen separate contentions.

The coalition has also pledged to resist any attempts by DTE to exploit public subsidies to build Fermi 3. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the availability of $12.5 billion in federal loan guarantees (and likely loans), backed by taxpayers, for new reactor construction. And the precedent has recently been set by the Michigan Public Service Commission for ratepayer-funded "Construction Work in Progress" (CWIP)-like bailouts for nuclear construction as well.

The two proposed new reactors in Georgia, Vogtle 3 & 4, are being financed with both federal loan guarantees and loans -- to the tune of $8.3 billion worth -- as well as via gouging ratepayers on their electricity bills (CWIP surcharges).

As quoted in the coalition's press release, its attorney, Terry Lodge, said: “Once all administrative remedies are exhausted at NRC, we plan to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, on multiple environmental and safety-related fronts.”

Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates in Burlington, Vermont, and the coalition's expert witness on quality assurance (QA), said at the time of Halloween, 2013 NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearings in southeast Michigan: “Given Detroit Edison’s violations of quality assurance requirements, the geological borings and soil samples are suspect. Fermi 3’s building structures would be very heavy, so the geotechnical data has to be verifiable, so that the atomic reactor’s foundations are rock solid, and seismically qualified.”

And coalition coordinator, Michael Keegan of Don't Waste MI in Monroe, said: “In addition to ducking a transmission corridor EIS, DTE and NRC are attempting to duck the laws of physics. The corridor as currently configured will not meet NRC recommended design vulnerability protections, including its susceptibility to many single failure events that could remove all three lines from service. This is made significantly worse by being part of the same transmission corridor as Fermi 2, a Fukushima Daiichi twin-design.”

Farouk D. Baxter, PE, an expert/specialist on nuclear power plant electrical systems, testified to the ASLB on this very topic during a public comment period regarding Fermi 3.

Fermi 2 is a super-sized version of the General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactor, as big as Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 and 2 put together. Beyond Nuclear, Citizens Environment Alliance of S.W. Ontario, and Don't Waste MI, again represented by Lodge, are currently intervening against DTE's proposed 20-year license extension at Fermi 2, as well.

Citizens Resistance at Fermi Two (CRAFT) has independently filed numerous contentions against the Fermi 2 license extension, as well.

The proposed co-location of Fermi Units 2 and 3 raises the specter of a multi-reactor catastrophe, like the one still unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi after four years, with no end in sight. In fact, Fermi 2 and 3 would represent the worst of both worlds, located side-by-side: an age-degraded reactor, at risk of a breakdown phase disaster; and an untested, brand new reactor design never built before anywhere in the world, at risk of unforeseen design flaws and other break-in phase risks. David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at Union of Concerned Scientists, refers to such elevated risks as the "Bathtub Curve" (due to the graph's shape).

A meltdown at either reactor, or fire in either reactor's high-level radioactive waste storage pool, could drag the neighboring reactor and pool into the radioactive catastrophe, as happened at Fukushima Daiichi.

Ironically enough, Fermi 3 would be built on the exact spot where the Fermi 1 experimental plutonium breeder reactor had its "We Almost Lost Detroit" partial core meltdown on October 5, 1966.