UPDATE: Energy companies seek to develop reactors in Missouri

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 8:37 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A pair of energy companies Thursday announced a new attempt to expand nuclear energy in Missouri, this time by seeking federal energy funds for small nuclear reactors.

Under the plan, Westinghouse Electric Co. will seek up to $452 million from the U.S. Department of Energy in investment funds designed to support the engineering, design certification and operating licensure of small modular nuclear reactors. The utility Ameren Missouri says it then would become the nation's first power company to apply for a construction and operating license from federal regulators for a small reactor developed by Westinghouse.

Ameren plans to seek a license that would allow it to build and operate up to five nuclear reactors. The license would be valid for 40 years, and Ameren said the application process could cost $80 million to $100 million and take four years. Obtaining the license would not require Ameren to add the reactors.

Applications for money from the U.S. Department of Energy are due in May, and a decision on who wins could come this summer. But it might take until 2022 before any possible new reactors would come online in Missouri.

Ameren Missouri President and CEO Warner Baxter said the proposal could save customers millions of dollars in development costs. The St. Louis-based power company has 1.2 million electric customers, mostly in eastern and central Missouri.

"This is an opportunity that the state of Missouri simply cannot let pass by," Baxter said.

Energy company officials and elected state officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon, announced the possible nuclear energy expansion at the Governor's Mansion about 25 miles southwest of the state's lone nuclear plant, which is operated by Ameren Missouri in Callaway County. Other Missouri utilities and cooperatives back the plan.

"I can't tell you how big a deal this is for our state. This is the big one," said Barry Hart, the CEO for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. "This is going to provide jobs and economic opportunity for our state, for the people that live here, that want to raise their families here for a long, long time."

Previous attempts to expand nuclear energy in Missouri have faced criticism.

Ed Smith, the safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said the state should bolster energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts rather than promote expensive nuclear power.

"The fact that we are speeding so quickly into the whole small modular nuclear reactor is so frightening," Smith said.

Another opponent of past nuclear energy proposals, the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund, called the agreement a "major victory" for consumers because it would not require ratepayers to start paying for a nuclear plant before it begins producing electricity. The group also pledged to monitor Ameren's actions closely.

Twice in recent years Ameren and other supporters have sought to clear the way for possible construction of an additional Missouri nuclear power plant. Those efforts stumbled in the legislature amid attempts to alter a 1976 state law that bars utilities from charging customers for the costs of a new plant before it starts producing electricity.

Legislators in 2009 considered a measure that would have allowed utilities to seek state regulators' permission to include the financing costs for certain types of new power plants in consumer bills before the plant is operational. Last year, lawmakers considered a proposal to allow power companies to seek permission from the Public Service Commission to charge customers for the cost of getting an early site permit from federal regulators for a possible second nuclear power plant.

Baxter said Thursday that Ameren was putting on hold those efforts dealing with the early site permit. Officials said no state legislative action is needed for the federal licensing part of the latest proposal.

Westinghouse said a small nuclear reactor could produce 225 megawatts of electricity, about one-fifth the capacity of a large nuclear plant. The small modular nuclear reactors would be built in factories and shipped to where they are needed without altering tunnels and bridges. They are expected to take about two years to build, instead of roughly five years for larger plants.

Nixon, a Democrat who endorsed Ameren's proposal to charge customers for an early site permit, said the agreement could be an economic boon for Missouri. He said it could help ensure the state's energy needs are met while creating the potential for new manufacturing and possibly sparking a new global industry in Missouri.

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Ellis Smith April 20, 2012 | 5:24 a.m.

Thanks for the update, defining reactor output (in megawatts).

It occurs to me that to some people, "small nuclear reactor" is like saying "small elephant." I trust that Mr. Ed Smith (see article) isn't permanently traumatized. :)

Westinghouse has been designing nuclear reactors for years; whether that's saying a lot is problematic, but if their prior designs weren't satisfactory they'd hardly be in that business.

Exactly where in Callaway County do they propose to put these units? I'd assume the units require a water source.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 20, 2012 | 5:55 a.m.

This is interesting in that it like nullifies the current bottleneck for reactor construction, which is obtaining the heavy forgings needed for the reactor pressure vessel and piping.

Currently there are four facilities that can forge 600 ton ingots, and they're all in Asia, If they've come up with a design that uses components that are producible domestically with existing equipment here, this would make it much faster to produce them. Plus, capacity could be added a little at a time, rather than all at one with a large reactor.

Efficiency is great, but a lot of current electric waste is due to human behavior, which is a lot more difficult thing to change than a light bulb or air conditioner. Both industry and government project higher electrical demands in the future regardless of efficiency initiatives, especially if a real attempt is made to electrify transport.

Renewables (wind and solar) are still far more expensive per energy unit than even nuclear, and will remain so for the forseeable future.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 20, 2012 | 2:30 p.m.

It's likely that the technical aspects of such a proposal will be rather easy to deal with, compared to the political aspects.

Meanwhile, in California lawsuits have been filed by environmental groups (including Sierra Club) against a utility company using wind turbines as an electrical power source. Seems Golden Eagles have died as a result of collisions with turbine blades, along with other lesser birds and night-flying bats.

As the old saying goes, "ya can't win fur losin'."

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