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Despite failure to overturn CWIP, AmerenUE keeps nuclear options open

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2009 - AmerenUE says it is keeping its application to build a nuclear power plant alive while it considers all of its options, but it is keeping a tight lid on what those options are.

Last month, when it became clear that its effort to have ratepayers pay for financing the multibillion-dollar facility would not succeed in the Missouri Legislature, AmerenUE CEO Thomas R. Voss said the utility "is suspending its efforts to build a nuclear power plant in Missouri."

At the same time, Ameren noted that it had spent $75 million on preparatory work for the plant, even though it had not made a firm decision on whether it would even be built. The money went primarily toward drawing up and filing an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ordering parts that require a long lead time; it cannot be recovered from utility customers under a law approved by voters in 1976.

But though Ameren suspended efforts to build a second plant on the Callaway County site in mid-Missouri where its current plant is, the utility did not want to write off its investment so far, spokesman Mike Cleary said Friday

"You can't say we cancelled the second unit because we had never made a decision to build it," Cleary said. "All we have done to date is preserve the option to build in the future.

"Nothing has changed. This has been what we have been saying for a couple of years, that if we did not build, the work we had done on it would have some marketable value."

At the same time Ameren said it was giving up on its push in the legislature, it filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission a statement that noted it had not only spent the $75 million but also had contractual commitments for $85 million more in the specialized forgings for the plant; the equipment is made at only one place in the world, Japan Steel Works, Cleary said.

"The incurred costs will remain capitalized while management assesses all options to maximize the value of its investment in this project," the filing said.

"However, UE cannot at this time predict which option will ultimately be selected, whether any or all of its investment in this project will be realized or whether there will be a material impact on UE's and Ameren's results of operations."

Cleary explained Friday that one possibility that would explain why the utility is keeping its application alive is that the license application "could be transferred to another entity that could build the plant there."

He did not elaborate on other possible options or any timetables for a decision to be made. He did say that in both situations where money has already been spent -- the licensing process and the orders for long-lead time heavy forgings for the plant -- Ameren wanted to keep its place in line so the process could move forward.

"At this time," Cleary said, "we can't predict what option would ultimately be selected, but placing the review on hold at this tie could impact certain of our options that are under consideration.

"All we are doing is evaluating the various options available to maximize the value of our investment in this project."

The application was submitted to the NRC last July and the company would have expected to hear a decision in 2011 or 2012, said Cleary. With that kind of lead time, and with any additional costs likely to be minimal, it makes sense for Ameren to keep the application alive, he added.

To Kat Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, keeping the application for a second plant means that Ameren is not ending its hopes for more nuclear power to be generated in Missouri. The question remains: If the money won't be coming from ratepayers, who will foot the bill?

"If they could find someone to pay for it, I think they want to build it," she said.

"They do kind of like the idea of selling the license to someone else and having access to that power. It could be a moneymaker for them.

"But they have not investigated the options that we as a society really want - energy efficiency and renewables. We're forcing them to do it with Proposition C, so that will move forward, and the technology for that is improving every single day."

Smith also says that to her, keeping the application process alive is not consistent with Ameren's statement that it is suspending efforts to build a second nuclear plant in Missouri.

"What they're telling the public and what they are telling the NRC is not the same thing," she said. "It's that discrepancy between what they say and what they do that leads to the credibility problems they have as an organization."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.