JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers and Ameren Missouri have not given up on plans to pursue building a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County despite recent problems at a Japanese nuclear power plant.
Last week, a Senate committee heard testimony from both supporters and opponents of a second Callaway plant, just two days prior to a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan, causing multiple explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Although the explosions have spotlighted potential dangers with nuclear plants, Ameren, the state's main utility provider, and its legislative supporters have not changed their stance on legislation that would help Ameren develop another nuclear plant.
Rick Eastman, Ameren's business operations supervisor, said Japan's problems with its nuclear reactors have not impeded his company's push to acquire the site permit needed to begin construction of a second plant in Callaway County.
Eastman also said Ameren has safety procedures in place to deal with emergency situations, including those caused by natural disasters, such as an earthquake or tornado. These precautions include steel-reinforced concrete walls, seismic sensors and backup generators, as well as the ability to shut down the plant if anything "out of the ordinary" is noticed.
"If there is anything that might threaten the plant, the first step is to shut the reactor down," Eastman said.
Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, sponsor of a bill to secure the permit, agreed with Eastman. He said Missouri's energy future cannot be influenced by international events and that the option for nuclear power has to be left open.
"We have to continue to talk about what sources of energy we are going to get for this state," Kehoe said.
"The unfortunate incident in Japan has not changed the fact that coal is a very expensive source that is under attack from various groups from A to Z.
"So the way we produce power in this state is, unfortunately, not going to be changed by what happens globally, and the demand for power in this state is going to continue to be there and continue to be a need that we need to address."
Eastman said the utility provider is waiting for the legislation to make its way through the General Assembly so the company can keep the option of building another plant open.
If the proposed legislation passes, it would allow Ameren to apply for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and charge its ratepayers an additional $2 for up to 20 years to pay for the construction of the new nuclear facility.
"No decision to build a second plant has been made; the whole legislation regarding the site permit is simply to keep the option open, as we continue to look at what's the best thing to do for Missouri's energy future," Eastman said.
"If we were to push forward with approved site permit legislation and Ameren Missouri were to file for an application (to build a plant), part of what we would use the three-year NRC review time for is to look at all of the various technologies."
Kehoe said despite general safety concerns, strict safety standards in this country would make any nuclear plants that Ameren would build sufficiently safer than the Fukushima plant in Japan, which was built in 1967.
So far, the plant has suffered three explosions that severely damaged three reactors and caused a fire in a fourth.
After Friday's earthquake and ensuing tsunami, the Fukushima plant's cooling systems failed. That caused the fuel rods' temperature to increase rapidly, cracking the protective casings around the fuel in the rods.
Once the casings were damaged, Japanese officials reportedly believe the fuel came into contact with the steam and released hydrogen gas, which was then vented out of the reactors and led to the explosions.
The Fukushima Unit 1 uses a boiling water reactor, in which the water that cools the fuel rods boils, turns to steam and rotates turbines to generate electricity. Because the water making up this steam directly passes through the core of the reactor, a greater amount of the plant is likely to be exposed to radiation.
According to a report released by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nuclear energy information and watchdog group, there are 23 similar reactors in the United States — including four in Illinois — based on a similar design, known as the General Electric Mark 1.
Unlike these reactors, Ameren's current Callaway plant is a pressurized water reactor, which separates the coolant water from the steam turbine system, reducing the risk of radioactive contamination.
"It would be irresponsible for someone to say there are no safety concerns," Kehoe said. "There are always safety concerns when you build any kind of project ... I think the facilities that we would go forward with would be engineered through the early site permit process to withstand any possible acts of nature that we could have."
At Friday's committee hearing, Ameren Missouri CEO Warner Baxter promoted the benefits of a potential second Callaway plant in front of the Senate committee.
"(A site permit) gives us the opportunity to access federal incentives, which can save our customers money," Baxter said at the hearing. "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."