How much power does Carolina Power & Light have? No doubt the corporate giant wields plenty of muscle in state politics, but does CP&L have enough clout to circumvent the democratic process?
That's the key question being raised by activists in an ongoing effort to keep the utility from increasing its storage capacity for high-level radioactive waste at Wake County's Shearon Harris nuclear power plant. Like dozens of other nuclear utilities around the country, CP&L is running out of space to store the fuel rods that power the reactors. Eighteen months ago, the corporation asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to put two idle waste-storage pools on line to hold highly radioactive spent fuel rod assemblies from its three nuclear plants. Expecting rubber-stamp approval from the NRC, CP&L instead has found itself in a major battle with several Triangle governments that have opposed the expansion request. Led by NC WARN, a Durham-based environmental watchdog group, scores of politicians--from various town governments all the way up to U.S. Senator John Edwards--have joined an effort to force CP&L to hold public hearings on its request.
Instead, CP&L is fighting back, accusing opponents of exaggerating the safety risks associated with storing fuel rods in the water-cooled pools. The utility also points out that it has operated two other pools safely since Shearon Harris opened in 1986. However, CP&L's hard line against allowing public hearings has ruffled lots of feathers among local governments. At an April 30 rally outside the gates of Shearon Harris, several politicians were on hand to protest CP&L's position. According to Chapel Hill activist Mark Marcoplos, the utility has never before faced such widespread opposition from politicians, not even when the company was seeking its original license for the plant.
"We're at the point now where we've about stretched democracy to the limit," Marcoplos says. "And the question is, 'Is that enough to prevail against a major entrenched corporation like CP&L?'" Marcoplos says that CP&L is essentially operating within a closed federal system that places all the power in the hands of the NRC and allows the company to avoid public scrutiny. "It could be that we do everything we can on the side of working with the system and still be left where we started, with CP&L hiding behind their lawyers and their PR people. That's the question," he repeats. "What do people do when democracy fails them?"
Up until now, more than $100,000 has been anted up by local governments to hire experts to critique CP&L's expansion plan. Orange County Commissioner Margaret Brown says she'd prefer that CP&L use aboveground dry cask storage for the waste instead of the water-cooled pools, an option that CP&L says would be more costly and no safer.
"We're going to find out if this [storage plan] is safe, and if it's not, we're going to continue to make sure that this terrible stuff that we're stuck with for the next 10,000 years is properly and safely contained," Brown explained at the rally. Like Brown, Chapel Hill Town Council Member Kevin Foy says CP&L should welcome full public involvement in the decision-making process. Foy claims he wants CP&L to be "a responsible corporate citizen."
"This is not an open process," the council member stated in an interview at the rally. "From our point of view, it's perfectly legitimate to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Is that going to be safe?'" Foy went on to stress that the issue is safety, and not anti-nuclear sentiment. "The issue here is telling the public the truth, and what, in God's name, would be a reason for not doing that? They're not telling us anything. They're stonewalling."
Consultants hired by Orange County have said the CP&L plan will increase the safety risks at the Harris plant. Nonetheless, Marcoplos expects the NRC to give the green light to CP&L's plan to open the other pools. The involvement of Senator Edwards could change that, however, Marcoplos says.
"You never know with Edwards' involvement," he explains. "You get some of these federal officials shining the light in the NRC's window. Something could happen. They love to operate in the dark, and they're worried when they are being observed."