JEFFERSON CITY — Testifiers for a plan for a second nuclear plant in Callaway County gathered outside two Senate hearing rooms Wednesday an hour before a hearing on the issue began.
The crowd, which consisted of both supporters and dissenters of the plan, gathered on nearby benches and watched the proceedings on a TV provided in the hallway. Each person in the crowd came to provide his or her opinion on Ameren Missouri's attempt to put the cost of building the plant on its ratepayers.
To build the plant, Ameren, the state's main utility provider, would need to acquire an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The permit would allow the utility company to hire outside researchers to analyze environmental, geological and safety aspects of the proposed building site.
The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said the bill is a compromise between Ameren and state lawmakers, who are trying to ensure the site permit moves forward while protecting ratepayers from suffering a major rate increase.
"After multiple meetings, I came up with (the bill), which is laid out to be a compromise, but I want to be clear; it is not an agreement to the letter from either side," Kehoe said. "No one on either side of this equation was 100 percent happy with it, but it represents me, as a common sense guy, saying I recognize what needs to be done and the need for consumer protection, and I thought that was fair."
Warner Baxter, CEO of Ameren, said the additional charge for ratepayers would be an additional $2 per year for the average resident and two-tenths of 1 percent for larger industrial users. Baxter said the charge is a low cost for building and promotes the potential benefits a site permit and nuclear plant could bring.
"(A site permit) gives us the opportunity to access federal incentives, which can save our customers money," Baxter said. "Certainly there is no doubt that a nuclear plant could present a great economic development opportunity by creating thousand of clean energy jobs and hundreds, if not more, permanent jobs in the future."
To protect the ratepayers, Kehoe said his bill provides certain instructions about how much Ameren can charge, as well as procedures for ratepayer rebates if Ameren does not use the site permit to build a nuclear plant:
- The proposal places a "hard cap" on the amount of money Ameren can recover from its customers to pay for the site permit. According to the proposal, Ameren cannot collect more than $40 million to $45 million from its ratepayers.
- Ameren can only collect the additional rate for 20 years. Ameren estimates, however, that at $2 per resident per year, the company should be able to allot enough money to reach the $40 million to $45 million cap.
- If the site is not built, the bill would require Ameren to give back the money it collected. If the bill passes and Ameren does not receive the site permit from the NRC, decides to sell the permit or does not build the plant, Ameren would need to present a rebate to the ratepayers that equals the amount the company received from the consumers, including interest. Ameren would need to present the credit to ratepayers in 5 to 10 years.
Opponents to the bill, such as members from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said making consumers pay for the plant's construction went along with the Construction Work in Progress proposal, which allows utilities to charge ratepayers for the payment of new power plants during construction.
Ed Smith, the No-Construction Work in Progress proposal representative with the coalition, said that the legislation should not pass since voters shot down similar legislation two years ago and that Ameren needed the proposal to build the second Callaway reactor.
"Without CWIP, Ameren would not be able to finance a second nuclear reactor, and Ameren needs CWIP because the free market gave up on nuclear power decades ago," Smith said. "While construction of a second nuclear reactor is sure to create jobs in Missouri, no state has ever improved its economic well-being by going with the more expensive option."
Smith also said Missouri residents should not be left to "pick up the tab on a 50-50 gamble" that Ameren has already spent millions of dollars on pursuing.