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Ameren supports effort that could lead to new nuclear generation in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - Ameren Missouri and other publicly owned utilities in the state have agreed to support Westinghouse Electric Co. in its attempt to secure federal funds for nuclear technology that could result in new construction at the utility’s power plant in mid-Missouri.

Westinghouse is applying to the Department of Energy for up to $452 million to invest in small modular reactors, or SMRs. A final decision on who will get money from the investment fund, which was announced last month, is expected this summer.

In announcing support for the application, Ameren said the funding could “support first-of-its kind engineering, design certifications and operating licenses for up to two SMR designs over five years.”

If Westinghouse gets the federal money, according to a statement from Gov. Jay Nixon’s office, it would work with Ameren to seek licenses needed from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build SMR technology “to help meet our entire state’s energy needs and transform Missouri into a hub for manufacturing SMRs to be exported to countries around the world.”

No one would say for sure whether a successful bid by Westinghouse for the federal grant would lead to Ameren's building a second nuclear facility. The utility has kept its ultimate plans close to the vest in recent years; Warner Baxter, chairman, president and chief executive of Ameren Missouri, would say only that the effort would preserve an important energy option for the company.

Past efforts to build additional nuclear capacity at Ameren’s Callaway County site have faltered, at least in part because of the failure of lawmakers to pass legislation to allow the utility to charge customers for the cost of construction works in progress (CWIP). Such charges were barred by a voter-approved initiative in 1976.

No legislative action or change in Missouri law is needed to move forward with the application for the investment funds, Ameren said. Nixon’s office said that because of the application, efforts to overturn the ban on CWIP have been placed on hold.

Announcing the effort, Nixon said:

“Designing, developing and commercializing next-generation nuclear technology will create good jobs for Missourians, expand our global exports and ensure Missouri has affordable, abundant, safe and reliable power for generations to come.”

Baxter said the federal program “presents Missouri with a tremendous opportunity to save Missouri customers millions of dollars associated with operating license development costs.

“Equally important, winning the DOE competitive process positions Missouri for a transformational economic development opportunity, which includes becoming the hub for the engineering design, development, manufacturing and construction of American-made SMR technology in Missouri, in the United States and around the world.”

Kate Jackson, Westinghouse’s senior vice president and chief technology officer, added:

“Our experience, capabilities and licensing expertise, coupled with Ameren’s working utility knowledge and Missouri’s highly skilled workforce, strong foothold in the nuclear industry and central location, create a competitive advantage to rapidly deploy SMR units here in the United States and elsewhere in the world.”

Westinghouse said its SMR technology is based on a pressurized water reactor whose design has already been licensed by the NRC. Eight units are currently being constructed, four in China, with the first set to go online next year, and four in the United States -- two each in Georgia and South Carolina -- with the first expected to go online in 2016.

It called SMRs “highly compact, safe and reliable reactors that make nuclear power an attractive option for a variety of electric energy providers.”

If Westinghouse wins money from the DOE grant, that could begin a process that would see a small modular reactor online in mid-Missouri by 2022, Ameren officials said. The company would first have to obtain a combined construction and operating license, then win licensing for the SMRs, working with Westinghouse.

Once those processes are complete, construction would take about 24 months.

In a conference call with reporters, Jackson, of Westinghouse, said the company was drawn to Ameren and Missouri because of its past record with nuclear power and its geographic position, making it central to develop and deliver the small modular reactors on a global scale.

Baxter called the effort "a tremendous opportunity for us to work together in a public-private partnership to secure Missouri's energy and economic future."

He said repealing CWIP is not the only way that the project would become financially viable, but he insisted that doing so would have long-term cost savings for customers.

He also stressed the wide-ranging implications for the state for the whole project.

"This is much broader than simply construction a new SMR in Missouri," Baxter said. "The bigger picture is the overall economic development opportunity for Missouri to become a hub for designing, engineering, training and manufacturing of these small modular reactors."

Baxter said Ameren now generates 76 percent of its electricity with coal from plants that are aging. "As environmental regulations remain highly uncertain," he said, "we are convinced that maintaining effective resource options is clearly in the best interest of our state."

Noting the nuclear expertise available at the University of Missouri, he said that it will be able to train the future workforce for the small modular reactors. "We feel the university's role will be extensive," Baxter said.

Even before Nixon’s announcement, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill praised the deal, calling it a “tremendous opportunity for Missouri jobs.”

“In addition to the potential for good-paying jobs,” she said in a statement, “a program like this could put our state on the front lines for developing state-of-the-art technology to be exported across the globe, and would mean expanded technical training and nuclear expertise at our universities. I strongly support this application, and look forward to working with folks on the ground to make this idea a reality.”

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, added: “Given the expertise and cooperative effort, I am confident that we’ll be able to make the case that Missouri is deserving of participating in the SMR program and providing a plan that will result in the construction of a cutting-edge reactor early in the next decade.”

Irl Scissors, executive director of Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, also hailed the announcement, saying the “historic partnership positions Missouri to become a worldwide leader and exporter of energy technology and manufacturing — securing our economic and energy future for generations.”

Chris Roepe, director of the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund, called the effort "a major victory for Missouri utility consumers. There is a right way and a wrong way to finance construction of new energy resources in our state, and this is the right way....

"This announcement accomplishes FERAF's No. 1 priority on this issue -- ensuring that Missouri ratepayers will not spend a penny on a new nuclear plant until and unless it begins producing globally competitive low-cost energy."

Not everyone greeted the news so enthusiastically.

Edward Smith, safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, noted that Westinghouse is still cleaning up radioactive waste from a site at Hematite, Mo., and said the state does not need any more sources of waste.

“Renewable energy and energy efficiency can create 18,000 jobs across the state and meet 25 percent of our state’s electric needs starting now, instead of experimenting with expensive nuclear power,” Smith said in a statement.

“It’s maddening our state’s elected officials are pursuing risky nuclear power technology when there is no plan for the safe storage of the toxic radioactive waste piling up at the Callaway 1 nuclear reactor.”

In an interview, Smith elaborated on his view, saying that whatever energy is produced by a new nuclear facility would be more expensive than energy from sources like wind, as well as costing more than energy efficiency measures.

"We have a bunch of folks that have the midset of those who made the Titanic," Smith said. "It's clean. It's safe. It can't happen here. Well, the Titanic sank, and three nuclear reactors melted and two of their containment buildings blew up at Fukushima last year. Thinking we can do nuclear power that is 100 percent safe is a complete misnomer."

He also criticized public officials for buying into Ameren's plan.

"It's a damn shame that our elected officials have been convinced by Ameren to pursue this," Smith said. "It's corporate welfare. The only way you can build a nuclear reactor these days is to have the ratepayers of a monopoly utility, captive customers, pay as they go.

"It's absurd. The only way to finance nukes is to increase ratepayers' rates now for energy in the future. That's money that fixed-income customers could certainly use. It's an atomic Solyndra, that's what I fear."

PJ Wilson, director of the group Renew Missouri, said the Ameren effort ignores the vote by Missourians in 2008 to put more emphasis on renewable energy sources in the state.

"Utilities are essentially mocking voters by claiming compliance with electricity from non-renewable technologies and electricity produced outside the state that won't ever make it to Missouri," he said in a statement. "They're trying every trick in the book to waste Missouri ratepayer dollars instead of investing it in real renewable energy."

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.