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Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gives Areva Initial OK

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History is like lightning. It can light up the sky and terrify all at once. But blink, and you'll miss it.

As the summer's biggest lightning storm ripped through Southwest Idaho on Aug. 9, history was being made in the safe confines of a Boise hotel ballroom.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unveiled an exhaustive draft of an Environmental Impact Statement concerning Areva's proposed uranium enrichment facility for Eastern Idaho: 664 pages worth. Eyes glazed over more than once during the session.

But right about 7:20 p.m., lightning hit.

"The NRC staff's preliminary recommendation is that, unless safety issues mandate otherwise, Areva should be issued a license to construct and operate the facility," said Stephen Lemont, NRC's environmental project manager.

And with that, Idaho moved a giant step toward a commercial nuclear age. The NRC, Areva and opponents would remind us that several important steps remain before full licensing of the proposed $3.3 billion uranium enrichment facility: a public comment period, another EIS in 2011, hearings on safety and environmental matters, and a final licensing decision in January 2012.

But on Aug. 9, the NRC laid the first brick on a road toward licensing, and the burden now sits fully on the shoulders of opponents.

That's not to say that opponents are unbowed. About 45 minutes into the hearing, the Snake River Alliance laid bare the NRC's assumptions.

Liz Woodruff, energy policy analyst for SRA, took about 20 minutes to deconstruct the NRC thesis.

"This draft is inadequate," said Woodruff, challenging the commission's impact analyses of land use, air quality, water resources, public and occupational health, and waste management.

Woodruff preceded a long list of speakers, but for those expecting an even balance of pro vs. con, disappointment quickly settled in.

Rich Barkley, a nuclear and environmental engineer, was hired by the NRC to serve as a facilitator. At the beginning of the evening, he promised to alternate between elected officials and members of the public. He quickly broke his own ground rules.

One by one, government officials offered strong support of all things nuclear. All the familiar names were put into the record: Otter, Crapo, Simpson. But none showed. Each sent a staffer to read their letters.

That was followed by a long list of supporters from Idaho Falls. Scores of Treasure Valley residents looked on in frustration, minutes turning into hours, waiting for their opportunity to speak.

You may want to read the draft EIS for yourself at nrc.gov/reading-rm/adams.html. The access number is: ML101890384.

It is possibly the most important document you'll read for years to come.

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