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Ameren partnership is not giving up on small nuclear reactors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 21, 2012 - Despite disappointing news from the Department of Energy, Ameren Missouri says it is pressing ahead with its partners to make small nuclear reactors a key part of economic development in the state.

It just isn’t sure how much federal money may be available, when it may be awarded or what changes to its approach it may need to make to be successful in the next round.

In April, Ameren announced it had teamed up with other publicly owned utilities in Missouri, with the support of a broad range of elected officials, to back a bid by Westinghouse Electric Co. to gain up to $452 million to invest in small modular reactors, or SMRs.

The goal was to make Missouri a center for the design, manufacture and worldwide export of the reactors, which some see as the next generation of nuclear power. While no one would say so definitively, winning the grant could also have led to Ameren building a second nuclear generating facility at its site in Callaway County.

Late Tuesday, the Department of Energy announced that it had chosen a project led by Babcock & Wilcox, in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel, for initial funding from the grant.

But, the department added that it “plans to issue a follow-on solicitation open to other companies and manufacturers, focused on furthering small modular reactor efficiency, operations and design.”

The initial award, according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, will be part of a five-year cost-sharing agreement for up to half of the price of the project. A statement from the department called the project “a significant investment in first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for small modular reactors in the United States.”

Chu added:

“The Obama administration continues to believe that low-carbon nuclear energy has an important role to play in America’s energy future. Restarting the nation’s nuclear industry and advancing small modular reactor technologies will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production.”

The project will be based in Tennessee and will support additional suppliers and operations in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It has a goal of helping Babcock & Wilcox obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and achieve commercial operations by 2022.

After the department’s announcement, Warren Wood, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs for Ameren Missouri, said that the utility took heart from the part of the statement that talked about possible additional grants in the future.

“While they haven’t made an additional announcement,” he said, “there is a real potential for significant investment funds being available.”

He told the Beacon that Ameren is working to get a clearer picture of how much money would go to the Babcock & Wilcox project, how much more might be available and the terms under which it would be awarded.

Wood said Ameren still considers the Westinghouse technology for the small reactors to be "the most advanced the closest to being licensable,” and with the support of other utilities, government officials and universities in the state, it hopes to make Missouri a center of manufacture and export of the reactors.

“Frankly,” he said, “I think we’re well positioned to be the best team on the block. We see this as an area with significant opportunity for growth. Being the first mover in this area has an enormous economic development opportunity. We refer to it as transformational, and we want to get as much of this opportunity for Missouri as possible.”

As far as the potential of a small reactor at Callaway, Wood said, “I think there is a fair amount of time before you have to make that kind of decision. We would want to move forward with a small nuclear reactor at Callaway only if it is the best choice for our customers. It looks promising, but there are a couple of years before we have to make a firm decision on whether to build.”

Support and disappointment

The Ameren-Westinghouse bid had strong support from many of Missouri's public officials who expressed disappointment at the DOE's decision.

“We will continue to move forward with the strong partnership that has been formed to produce small modular reactor technology in Missouri,” Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement from his office. “This impressive coalition of public and private stakeholders will continue its work to put Missouri at the forefront of America’s energy future.”

Added Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

“I’m deeply disappointed in today’s announcement. This project would be a tremendous opportunity for Missouri jobs and American energy security. I plan to keep working with the folks at Ameren and Westinghouse to pursue new opportunities, and to continue working across the aisle to expand innovation and strengthen security in American energy.”

And a statement from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said:

“Missouri’s central location, key infrastructure, and universities with nationally recognized nuclear engineering programs make it the best location for this project. I’m disappointed the Obama administration did not heed my calls to strongly consider this application, and I’ll continue to support Ameren and Westinghouse as they continue to pursue this important energy and economic development opportunity for our state.”

The University of Missouri at Columbia, which had been a strong supporter of the Ameren-Westinghouse bid, released a statement Wednesday that said:

“We were disappointed to learn of the DOE’s decision. It is our understanding that both Ameren and Westinghouse view SMRs as the key to the future and will continue to pursue that technology despite the phase 1 decision. We greatly appreciate all the work that Westinghouse and Ameren have done, and are continuing to do, on this initiative. We will continue to provide close support for both on this important effort and are looking forward to learning more about the next phase of this process.”

Even before details of any further government award became available, the group Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future expressed its support for the Ameren-Westinghouse partnership’s effort for the next round of federal funding.

Executive Director Irl Scissors said in a statement:

“Now is the time to do all we can to ensure that Missouri is the best contender to gain these benefits. MBEF is prepared to work with our statewide membership during the 2013 legislative session to make energy a priority in our state. We must make necessary changes to strengthen Missouri’s utility infrastructure and regulatory framework so that we can compete for this funding.”

On the other side, Ed Smith, safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, called the Energy Department’s decision the third major setback for nuclear power in Missouri in four years.

The coalition is a steadfast opponent of nuclear power, preferring renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. In a statement, Smith said that if small modular reactors were a good investment, utilities would be able to develop them with investors’ money and would not need government grants.

”Nuclear power has been too risky for Wall Street for decades, is too risky for insurance companies to insure, and there is still no solution for storing radioactive waste, which remains a health threat for millions of years beyond its useful life in energy reation,” he added.

“Callaway 1 is already storing three times more spent nuclear fuel than it was originally designed to hold. The United States government should figure out where this forever toxic material is going to go before spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a SMR to create more.”

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