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AmerenUE drops plan to build second nuclear plant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009 - Stymied by a lack of movement on legislation it pushed in Jefferson City, AmerenUE today said it is abandoning its plans to build a second nuclear power plant in mid-Missouri.

President and CEO Thomas R. Voss told a news conference at AmerenUE headquarters that the company is asking legislative sponsors to withdraw bills that would have allowed customers to be charged for finance costs for the $6 billion plant.

Such charges have been illegal in Missouri since a public vote in 1976.

"As we were moving forward to preserve the option for nuclear energy for our state," Voss said, "we stressed that we needed financial and regulatory certainty before we could begin construction.

"However, the current version of the bill being debated in the Senate strips the legislation of the very provisions we needed most to move forward. As a result, AmerenUE is suspending its efforts to build a nuclear power plant in Missouri."

Asked whether suspending efforts is the same as abandoning plans to build the plant, Voss said yes, adding that the company has no plans to come back to Jefferson City next year and try again.

"We don't see anything that would change," he said. "Something would have to be remarkably different."

The company said it has spent $75 million so far in efforts to get a license for a new plant and to order components that have a long lead time. Company spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said ratepayers would not be charged for those expenditures.

At this point, Voss said, the company will have to examine its options for plants that could meet what AmerenUE expects to be energy needs in the future. Those options include plants fired by coal or gas as well as renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Ameren's efforts in Jefferson City had escalated into tense, sharply worded exchanges between those who favored its bills -- including labor leaders who wanted the jobs that the plant would produce -- and those who were opposed, including many environmental groups and some of the utility's largest customers.

The battle was most visible in a set of dueling ads from Ameren and from a group known as the Fair Electricity Rate Action Fund. The sharpest point of disagreement was the size of rate hikes that customers would face if the legislation passed.

In a statement after Voss' announcement today, FERAF's spokesman Gregg Keller said:

"Ameren's goal from the outset was to pass a potential 40 percent rate hike on Missouri utility payers and simultaneously strip important consumer protections that have protected Missourians for more than 30 years.

"It's unfortunate that Ameren has taken a 'my way or the highway' approach to this issue and that they have been so intransigent in their insistence on raising utility rates on struggling Missourians by as much as 40 percent during an economic recession and stripping consumer protections which have served our people well.

"If and when Ameren is ever willing to enter into honest negotiations which don't imperil Missouri's energy consumers, we at FERAF will be happy to discuss their proposal further."

AmerenUE has consistently denied that the legislation and the power plant would bring rate hikes of up to 40 percent; its estimates have been in the range of 1-3 percent.

In a statement, Irl Scissors, executive director of Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, which favored the legislation, said:

"Missouri should be advancing an agenda for a balanced energy future, but our state has blown its best opportunity to create a long-term, reliable, affordable, balanced energy portfolio.

There is no question that Missouri lost today .... With energy prices rising, carbon taxes looming, and more than 85 percent of our state's energy coming from coal, Missouri has lost its chance to address our need for a balanced path to affordable baseload energy."

Asked at a news conference about Ameren's decision, Gov. Jay Nixon said he had thought all along that the nuclear plant decision was a two-step process, and the utility did not seem to be acting with regard to current economic realities. Given the pressures on Missouri households, he said, repealing the ban on charging for construction works in progress was not the right thing to do.

He also said the utility's positions on the various issues involved remained frozen and did not shift as sentiments in Jefferson City against the legislation became clear.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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