JEFFERSON CITY — Backers of legislation designed to help build a second Missouri nuclear power plant are pushing forward with the idea, despite an emergency in Japan set off by an earthquake, tsunami and overheating reactors.
Yet, fears of meltdowns, radiation and the long term ramifications of the Japanese situation have spread across the Pacific. It also has tinged Missouri's debate about whether to let power companies charge their customers for taking a preliminary step toward potentially building a second reactor here.
"Obviously it's bad timing," said Republican Sen. Mike Kehoe, who has sponsored one of the proposals and whose central Missouri district could include a second nuclear plant. "You couldn't ask for any worse timing probably ... but I think it also gives you an opportunity to make sure you're highlighting the safety features any nuclear plant has designed into it."
Missouri utilities are asking the legislature to allow them to charge customers for the cost of an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A state law approved by voters in 1976 currently bars utilities from charging customers for the costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity. Last fall, a group of utilities announced that they were considering seeking an early site permit for a second nuclear plant. The permit would not specify a plant design or authorize construction, and the group has said it has not decided whether to build a second plant.
In Japan, a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami cut off regular electricity to the oldest unit at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex on country's eastern coast. That situation has added a new wrinkle to an already complicated debate in the Missouri Capitol about nuclear power.
Thus far, most of the discussion in Missouri has focused on consumer issues and whether it is fair to require customers to start paying for a power plant that is not producing electricity. But fears of a possible meltdown in Japan have given some critics a vivid example of the possible risks of nuclear energy.
"This catastrophe demonstrates the dangerous and unreliable nature of nuclear power in the event of a significant natural disaster," said Kat Logan Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "Now is certainly not the time to pursue the 'nuclear option' for Missouri's base load energy needs."
With nuclear concerns heightened, Ameren Missouri — which operates the state's only nuclear power plant in Callaway County and is part of the utility coalition considering a second plant — hosted a nighttime briefing for lawmakers last week about what was happening in Japan. The discussion also highlighted various safety features of Missouri's existing plant. Officials said the nuclear plant about 25 miles northeast of the state Capitol operates safely but that lessons from Japan would be learned and applied.
The nuclear plant legislation already faces an uncertain future. The proposal is supported by Gov. Jay Nixon and numerous lawmakers and has been endorsed by a House committee. But House leaders say they plan to wait for Senate action before moving forward with their version. A Senate committee considered a couple proposals for several hours earlier this month.
Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, a group that supports the nuclear plant legislation, said the early site permit would include a seismology review and disaster preparations. The group said state lawmakers need to act to keep the expansion of nuclear power as an option.
Since the Japanese disaster, President Barack Obama has renewed support for nuclear energy, which accounts for about 20 percent of the country's electricity.
However, others across the globe have been less enthusiastic while watching Japanese officials try to cool their reactors. In Europe, Switzerland has frozen plans to build new nuclear plants, and Germany has said it is suspending for three months a decision to extend the life of its plants.
This past week, Iowa lawmakers considered legislation that would allow a utility to recover costs for building a nuclear power plant while critics raised questions about safety. And in Minnesota, an attempt to lift that state's ban on new nuclear plants stalled, though Republican supporters blamed the Democratic governor and not the situation in Japan.
Some of the stiffest criticism to Missouri's legislation has come from an organization that represents consumers and industrial energy users. The group, called the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund, has called for limits on how much customers would be charged, a rebate provision if the plant never is built and a change in funding for the state office that represents customers before state regulators. Even with the problems in Japan that focus is unlikely to shift.
Supporters of the Missouri legislation said a tragedy in Japan does not change the need to increase power production in Missouri and to develop alternatives to fossil fuels.
"If we look at what we must do to take care of Missouri's energy future, our security and our economic future, we need to move ahead," said Republican Rep. Jeannie Riddle, who also has filed nuclear plant legislation. "The Challenger blew up in space travel. That killed people and we continued to move ahead with our space research. The Titanic sank. Many people were killed, but we still traveled the ocean."