Environmentalists contest license renewal at Callaway nuclear plant

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 | 7:18 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A Missouri environmental group is asking the federal government to more closely scrutinize Ameren Corp.'s request for a 20-year license renewal at the state's only nuclear power plant.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment on Tuesday filed a legal objection to the utility's plan with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The coalition wants the federal agency to hold a formal public hearing on Ameren's license renewal application, a move that would likely delay consideration of the request. Ameren's current 40-year operating license for the Callaway County plant expires in 2024.

The application and protest are not related to Ameren's recently announced plans to team up with Westinghouse Electric Co. to build five smaller, "modular" nuclear reactors. The companies are seeking more than $450 million in federal support for that project.

"Our longstanding concern, in regards to the Callaway nuclear reactor, has been one of public safety and the protection of our environment," said Ed Smith, the environmental group's safe energy director. The group held a Wednesday press briefing on its NRC filing.

Diane Curran, a Washington, D.C. attorney for the coalition, said the license renewal requires further scrutiny after a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The tsunami sent three of the plant's reactors into meltdown in the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

The nuclear agency has given Ameren and other U.S. nuclear reactor operators a deadline of February 2013 to submit an updated seismic study and complete another safety plan sought in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese disaster, with a December 2016 deadline to put those improvements in place.

Agency officials said at a March public hearing in Fulton that they expected to make a decision on Ameren's relicensing request by the end of 2013, though that time frame didn't account for a public hearing. Curran said the license renewal shouldn't happen until Ameren provides the government those requested plans. The St. Louis-based utility submitted its license renewal application for the nuclear plant late last year.

"The decision on a license renewal should be delayed until all of this information is in," she said.

Ameren spokesman Kent Martin did not respond Wednesday afternoon to an Associated Press interview request. The utility's Missouri manager for nuclear development previously said the Callaway relicensing request isn't necessarily contingent on enhanced safety rules post-Fukushima.

The environmental group's legal filing also criticizes Ameren for what it says is the company's "inadequate discussion" of wind energy as an alternative to the continued use of nuclear power in its required environmental reviews for the renewal request.

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Mark Foecking April 26, 2012 | 8:18 a.m.

Ameren doesn't discuss wind energy much because their service area is not a good place for wind. They'd (or a company they'd partner with) have to build transmission lines west or north, and deal with the randomness of wind energy. The extra equipment needed to transmit and backup wind energy is expensive.

Nuclear at $5,000/kw is comparable with wind at $1,200/kw on an energy unit basis (accounting for capacity factors), and does not need the backup that wind does. Transmission lines for wind have to be sized to carry the maximum output of the wind farm, but rarely carry that. Baseload plants like coal and nuclear can make more effective use of their transmission lines.

Losing Callaway will greatly impact the reliability of Missouri's electricity, and there aren't a whole lot of viable (economically) alternatives. Also, the price of electricity would be significantly higher if Callaway was replaced with equivalent energy capacity of wind and solar. If their license renewal is declined, there will be a scramble to build natural gas replacements, and overall carbon emissions of the state will rise after the plant closes.

Environmental coalitions like this rarely take electrical reliability or demand into their beliefs (I won't call them calculations because they usually aren't). Curtailing demand by rolling blackout is a very inconvenient way of dealing with the problem of inadequate capacity.


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