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Opponents of new license for nuclear plant face long odds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2012 - Even if opponents of a license extension for Ameren’s Callaway County nuclear plant don’t succeed, they hope their efforts will have long-term effects on nuclear power in Missouri and beyond.

To bolster their case, Diane Curran, lead counsel for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in the license extension case, and Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, cite several issues: safety concerns in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, weak efforts to increase electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and doubts about the accuracy of the projection for future needs for electricity.

The Callaway plant, which began generating power in 1984, is not up for license renewal until 2024, but Ameren Missouri has already filed its application for a 20-year extension. Makhijani said in an interview with the Beacon that trying to plan so far ahead is risky in any case, but particularly so when it comes to the future of nuclear power.

“I’m 67 years old,” Makhijani said. “This is as if I had gone to the doctor at 55 and said give me a clean bill of health for my heart when I’m 67. The Callaway plant has 12 more years of operating and 12 more years of aging. For the company to be able to apply for relicensing so far in advance doesn’t make sense.

“No insurance company will sell you a policy at age 65 at the price they would charge you at age 50. The issues are different.”

Added Curran:

“If all the evidence is taken into account, decision makers should make a different decision on Callaway. But there isn’t a magic bullet we can use to stop Callaway. What we can do is make sure that the federal and state and private decision makers really consider all the costs of relicensing Callaway and the fact that there are viable alternatives and it would be better for the environment if they didn’t relicense Callaway.”

The pair came to St. Louis Wednesday for a public hearing in University City, then traveled to William Woods University in Fulton for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission conference. Makhijani has also filed a statement in support of the effort to deny the license extension.

Asked to respond to what Makhijani had submitted, Ameren Missouri released this statement:

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) process for extending operating licenses includes opportunities for public input. Ameren Missouri is confident that the NRC will evaluate all public input thoroughly. We support the continued review of our application, and look forward to the opportunity to continue providing safe, reliable energy to our customers.”

Besides the relicensing at Callaway, Ameren is also involved in an effort to possibly install small modular reactors at the site. It is supporting a move by Westinghouse to win a federal grant for the development of the technology. The companies discussed the plan this week before the Missouri Public Service Commission.

Curran and Makhijani acknowledge that the NRC has never denied an application for a license renewal, though they did point to a case in the 1990s when an application was withdrawn after problems were discovered at the Yankee Rowe plant in western Massachusetts.

Such problems aren’t likely to be found at Callaway, they said. What the commission should take into account, they added, are lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the wake of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Whether those lessons will be considered is another question.

“We all know that Callaway is near the New Madrid fault,” Curran said. “But it is not permitted to review the question of whether we know more about that fault than we used to, and whether the plant is adequately designed.”

Such information would be part of an environmental impact statement, she said, one that relates not to license renewal but to ongoing operations.

“What the Missouri Coalition for the Environment is saying is that that process doesn’t make sense,” she said. “It’s too narrow a view. Before the commission decides whether to operate the plant for another 20 years, it should have to look at all of the Fukushima design issues.”

At the relicensing stage of the process, Curran said, the burden of proof to show that the reactor is safe falls on Ameren. But once the license is extended, the burden would shift to the public to show that issues of aging equipment should be taken into account.

“So it’s greatly advantageous for the company to apply early and get approval before these aging issues arise,” she said.

Another topic that Curran and Makhijani say should be considered in the relicensing process but may not be brought up is the storage and disposal of nuclear waste being generated at Callaway.

They also would like the commission to take into account the efficacy of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, which they said are cheaper and more ecological than nuclear power. Efforts to develop such sources in Missouri have been sorely lacking, they said.

“Instead of putting the cart before the horse,” Makhijani said, “they should consider the cost of this and its alternatives. I think the future of renewables is coming because technology is driving it. The world of electricity will look as different in 30 years as the telephone system we have today is different from the telephone system we had 30 years ago.”

Instead of a system where wind power provides 10 percent of electrical generation, they pointed to countries like Germany where it provides three times that amount or more. They discounted the frequently heard argument that wind power is unreliable, compared to nuclear reactors that are always generating electricity.

“The problem is the way they have set up the rules,” Makhijani said. “People say nuclear power is 24/7, and wind is variable, so they are not equivalent. That’s not true. Nuclear power is 24/7 until it’s 0/365. That is what we are seeing in Japan. We haven’t had a level playing field when it comes to the consideration of renewables. Nuclear power needs to run 100 percent of the time or has to be shut down. You can’t jack it up and down like you can with a gas turbine.

“A nuclear reactor is just a boiler. It’s just a way to boil water. To be making plutonium and spending huge amounts of money just to boil water doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we’re reluctant to get away from it because we’re reluctant to think in new ways.”

As far as the future of nuclear power and the need for electricity, Curran and Makhijani acknowledge they have no crystal ball. But, they said, given the economics of nuclear power plus the public’s drive toward efficiency, they don’t see a big future for nuclear generators.

“Nuclear reactors are an obsolete concept that Wall Street won’t finance,” Makhijani said. “They are obsolete and risky, in multiple ways. They take too long to build, and they’re too big. There will be no nuclear renaissance because they can’t be financed.

“If you think people are going to invest in nuclear power plants and think you know how to project electricity demand in 2027, I think you’re living in la la land. What projections that were made five years ago are valid today? None that I know of. Electricity projections have a systemic flaw: They do not take into account Economics 101. When the prices goes up, demand goes down.”

And, adds Curran, the nuclear power issue is emblematic of decisions on a whole range of issues that will be coming up in the years ahead.

“We’re at a crossroads of making some big choices here,” she said, “the whole country. This is an example.”

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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