Energy firms discuss nuclear plans with Missouri panel

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 | 4:52 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri utility regulators said Wednesday they are interested in a proposal for expanding nuclear energy in the state— although state officials so far have no authority over the possible project.

Westinghouse Electric Co. and power company Ameren Missouri formed a partnership to compete for federal energy funds designed to support the engineering, design certification and operation licensure of small modular nuclear reactors. The energy companies announced the plans earlier this spring at the Governor's Mansion and briefed members of the state Public Service Commission during a meeting Wednesday in Jefferson City.

Public Service Commission Chairman Kevin Gunn said he hopes company officials will provide periodic updates, even though it falls under federal regulators' authority.

"It certainly has the potential to be a very exciting project, so we wanted to get as much information as we possibly could," Gunn said.

Westinghouse has applied for a share of $452 million that the U.S. Department of Energy is making available for developing small nuclear reactors. Ameren plans to seek a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would allow it to build and operate up to five reactors. Ameren operates the state's lone nuclear power plant in Callaway County, about 25 miles northeast of the state Capitol.

The license would be valid for 40 years, and Ameren has said the application process could cost between $80 million to $100 million and take four years.

Joe Zwetolitz, the president of the Americas region for Westinghouse, said Wednesday that the companies are competing against at least four others for federal funds. They anticipate the U.S. Department of Energy will split the award between two winners and announce the decision in September before the federal fiscal year ends.

The Missouri project would involve a small nuclear reactor that could produce 225 megawatts of electricity, about one-fifth the capacity of a large nuclear plant. The reactors are expected to take about two years to build, instead of roughly five for larger plants. A new reactor might not come online until 2022.

St. Louis-based Ameren has 1.2 million electric customers, mostly in eastern and central Missouri. Ameren Missouri President and CEO Warner Baxter said the state could be a "hub" for small modular reactors by becoming the reference point that other utilities use in nuclear developments. Other Missouri utilities and electric cooperatives back the plan, and supporters hope to create significant jobs and boost economic development.

Opponents, such as the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, argue the federal funding would help develop unproven and untested nuclear reactors that do not make financial sense.

In recent years, Ameren and other power companies have sought to clear the way for possible construction of an additional nuclear power plant in Missouri, but those efforts have stumbled.

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