Could Texas become the capital of a resurgent nuclear power industry? This TCN Journal entry provides an annotated guide to some of the recent news coverage on the possibility of a nuclear revival in Texas and elsewhere.

South Texas Project

South Texas Project near Bay City

There has been talk of a “nuclear renaissance” before, with that prospect never realized. Recently, however, concerns about global warming have raised nuclear proponents’ perennial hopes that the long-stalled U.S. nuclear industry might be jump-started.

Nuclear generation of electricity emits no climate-changing carbon dioxide, though other aspects of the nuclear-power process, such as uranium mining, do have CO2 emissions.

The Associated Press took note of the current, CO2-conscious buzz surrounding nuclear power in an article marking the 30th anniversary in March of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in Pennsylvania. The headline: “Global warming giving nuclear new claim to clean.”

Concern arising from Three Mile Island was not the only reason that no construction of a new nuclear plant has been initiated in the U.S. since 1977. Nuclear power’s higher costs, compared to electricity generated with coal and natural gas, and lingering controversy over how to dispose of radioactive waste from nuclear plants are other key reasons.

If nuclear power does make a comeback thanks to the politics and economics of global warming, Texas may prove to be one of the places where that revival is focused.

Dallas-based Luminant wants federal approval to add new two nuclear reactors to its two-reactor Comanche Peak plant, about 40 miles south of Fort Worth. New Jersey-based NRG Energy, managing partner of the South Texas Project, likewise is seeking a federal OK to add two new reactors to that two-reactor nuclear plant, about 90 miles southwest of Houston near Bay City.

Preliminary federal hearings were held on the Comanche Peak application earlier this month and similar sessions got under way on the South Texas application this week.

The meetings will lead to decisions about whether issues raised by opponents can later be contested in full hearings as part of the federal license-application process.

Meanwhile, the prospective owners have been discussing the possible construction of two all-new nuclear plants in Texas – one near Amarillo in the Panhandle and one near Victoria, about 70 miles west of the South Texas plant – though the company behind the Victoria proposal announced this week that it was being put on hold.

Texas Nuclear Map

Current and possible nuclear plant sites

A comeback for nuclear – or not?

Wall Street Journal blogger Keith Johnson reported last month that MIT, updating its “seminal 2003 study on the role nuclear power could play in America’s energy mix,” had concluded that it has not made any significant progress and could “diminish as a practical and timely option” to help fight climate change in a big way. In a similar vein, New York Times blogger James Kanter posted an article several days later headlined “Is the nuclear renaissance fizzling?”

One group that does not want it to fizzle is congressional Republicans. As the Journal’s Johnson reported on June 10, their proposed alternative to Democrats’ climate/energy legislation aimed largely to boost nuclear power, “with a call to build 100 new reactors.”

The administration, meanwhile, has repeatedly signaled a willingness to support at least some expansion of nuclear power production. In March, Energy Secretary Steven Chu delivered congressional testimony in which he said, “Nuclear is going to be part of our energy future. It has to be.”

President Barack Obama spoke positively about expanding nuclear energy production during his campaign and in May said this: “I think we do have to look at nuclear, and what we’ve got to figure out is can we store the material properly? Can we make sure that they’re secure? Can we deal with the expense?”

Writing in the web-based environmentalist magazine Grist, Emily Gertz reported on June 12 that Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist recently named by President Barack Obama to his revived President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, also believes nuclear power must be part of the nation’s future energy mix. Jackson chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) during the Clinton administration and is now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

A few days after that article appeared, however, there was a reminder that controversy still swirls around the prospect of any nuclear revival. The Associated Press reported that its investigation of plans for the decommissioning of old nuclear plants had found that “companies that own almost half the nation’s nuclear reactors are not setting aside enough money to dismantle them, and many may sit idle for decades and pose safety and security risks as a result.”

South Texas Project

Last month, the proposed expansion of the South Texas plant got a big push from the federal government when it was selected as one of four nuclear construction projects eligible to split $18.5 billion in loan guarantees.

The San Antonio Express-News reported the decision on June 18. The day before, taking a detailed look at the national context of the loan decision, the Wall Street Journal called it “the biggest step in three decades to revive the U.S. nuclear industry and one that could vault the (four selected) utilities ahead of some of the sector’s strongest players.”

On June 24, the Bay City Tribune’s Heather Menzies reported the request for a tax abatement for the plant expansion from Matagorda County, which a representative of the South Texas owners said “a critical element” in getting the federal loan guarantee.

San Antonio’s city-owned CPS Energy holds a 40 percent stake in the South Texas Project, and city officials have yet to decide whether San Antonio will participate in NRG’s planned expansion of the plant. Austin, which owns a 16 percent share in the plan, has already decided not to be part of the expansion.

Robert Rivard, editor of the Express-News, examining the issue’s complexity for San Antonio in a column on June 7, noted that city leaders are expected to base their decision in large part on a CPS estimate of the expansion’s cost.

That estimate was released on Monday. Express-News reporters Anton Caputo and Tracy Idell Hamilton wrote that the utility’s estimated construction cost was $10 billion to $13 billion, which an official said would be “the long-term lowest price option” for the city. A critic was quoted as saying “the real cost” would be about double the city’s estimate.

Following up on that news on Wednesday, the Express-News’ Vicki Vaughan reported that “CPS Energy hopes to sell nuclear-generated power as a means of moderating rate hikes in San Antonio should it partner in an expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City.”

On June 21, Caputo had an in-depth story on another issue involved in the unfolding, multifaceted debate over expansion of the South Texas plant – how it and other “new power plants planned along the lower Colorado River could use the same water supply that was denied San Antonio for future growth.”

Meanwhile, Greg Harman of the San Antonio Current on June 19 took an advance look at the issues – including costs, water supply and vulnerability to terrorist attack – that opponents of the South Texas expansion were then planning to raise at last week’s hearings on the proposal, held by the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

Caputo’s story in the Express-News on June 24, reporting on the first day of the South Texas hearings, led with opponents’ argument that NRG’s application did not “account for the possibility the plant could be rammed by a large passenger jet” though federal officials have required planning for such an event in March.

On June 25, he wrote that on the hearings’ second day, opponents called for “a detailed side-by-side comparison of how much it would cost to produce the same power with renewable resources such as wind and solar.”

Comanche Peak

A June 3 article by Jack Z. Smith in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, published in advance of the NRC hearings on the proposed Comanche Peak expansion, reported that opponents of that project (including some of the South Texas opponents and represented by the same attorney) were planning to raise the aircraft issue in that proceeding, as well.

In an article published June 10, after the hearings got started, Smith summarized the opponents’ arguments, dealing with terrorism, plant waste, water issues and other concerns and reported that Luminant contended in response “that the claims were overly generalized and inadequately supported by analysis and technical references or were simply outside the jurisdictional scope of the hearing.”

A short report on the hearings by NPR affiliate station KERA is accessible here.

Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News filed an article June 13, following the Comanche Peak hearings, in which he discussed the larger context of efforts in Texas and elsewhere to revive the nuclear industry. Among other aspects, he discussed the implications of the federal government’s abandonment of the planned Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada for nuclear plant waste.

On June 23, the Waco Tribune-Herald’s J. B. Smith took an in-depth look at the Comanche Peak proposal’s ramifications for water-supply issues for the Waco-based Brazos River Authority. His lead: “A pair of nuclear reactors Luminant wants to build at Glen Rose, Texas, would boil away 55 million gallons of Brazos River basin water a day, dwarfing the water consumption of the whole city of Waco.”

Amarillo and Victoria proposals

Plans for new nuclear plants near Amarillo and Victoria have not progressed as far as those for the proposed expansions of the South Texas and Comanche Peak facilities.
The NRC currently lists [pdf] the Amarillo proposal as one of those for which it expects to receive license applications at some point in 2009.

Last September, Karen Smith Welch and Jim McBride reported in the Amarillo Globe-News that planning for the two-reactor plant had been delayed, but sponsors, including Amarillo developer George Chapman, were then saying an application would not be filed with the NRC until late this year. In March, the newspaper reported in a brief update that the application was expected “later this year.”

Meanwhile, the Victoria Advocate’s Alison Miles and Gabe Semenza reported on Tuesday that Illinois-based Exelon Nuclear was delaying a decision on whether to build a new plant near Victoria for at least three years – and perhaps by up to two decades – by seeking a federal “early site permit” rather than a “construction and operating license.”

The reporters added that company officials were attributing the postponement of a construction decision on “unforeseen U.S. economic woes, unpredictable energy prices and a lack of ample federal loan guarantees.” They also noted that Exelon was continuing its hostile bid to take over NRG, the company seeking to expand the South Texas Project.

Leading up to the Exelon announcement were several news reports painting a somewhat uncertain picture of the Victoria proposal’s status.

On May 15, Semenza reported in the Advocate that the company was denying an article by the Reuters news service that said a company had been chosen to construct the plant. A company spokesman was quoted as saying that Exelon did enter an agreement for “preplanning services such as licensing and cost estimating.”

Semenza then had a lengthy May 18 article on the proposal’s status, relating to preliminary reports that the proposed Exelon plant was not among the first four likely to receive federal loan guarantees. It was headlined “Did Exelon scrap Victoria County plans?”

That Advocate article noted that the Houston Chronicle had paraphrased Exelon’s chief executive officer to the effect that the Victoria plant was “likely to be scrapped” because it was not expected to get a federal loan guarantee.

Then Semenza added comments that an Exelon official had made to him about the Chronicle report:

Bill Harris, Exelon’s Victoria-based community outreach manager, said Rowe’s words were twisted.

“He said what we’ve said all along. We cannot build the Victoria project without loan guarantees,” Harris said. “This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Exelon’s still in the early application stages. We didn’t expect to be among the top projects to get loan guarantees.”

– Bill Dawson

Photo credit: NRG Energy