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Opponents in Missouri Mobilize Over Positioning Nuke Plants as 'Clean'
e "Clean and Renewable Energy Construction Act" was introduced in the
Missouri Senate, the bill's title evoked images of new wind turbines sprouting
from the northwest Missouri plains and solar panels lining St. Louis rooftops.
A more fitting image might be two more massive cooling towers rising in Callaway County.
While the legislation proposed last month may one day aid the development of more renewable energy or a next-generation coal-fired power plant, there's little doubt that its primary purpose is helping AmerenUE build a second nuclear reactor. It would do so by removing a key barrier - a 1976 law that prohibits the utility from charging customers for the plant before it's complete.
The nuclear industry spent more than two decades repairing an image badly damaged a generation ago by accidents and cost overruns. Now, proponents here and around the country are going a step further by pushing nuclear power as a greener energy source than coal and a key to helping curb global warming.
In the legislation that would repeal Missouri's ban on charges for construction work in progress, the text uses the word "clean" 26 times, while "nuclear" appears once. In Florida, a utility planning two new reactors unsuccessfully tried last fall to persuade regulators to define new nuclear plants as renewable energy.
Such efforts have been met with disdain by environmentalists, many of whom say categorizing nuclear power as "clean" energy is greenwashing.
"They're putting a green bow on a box of radioactive waste that's never going to go away," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
Nationwide, applications have been submitted for 26 new reactors in 14 states, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The agency has been told to expect filings for an additional nine by the end of next year. And wherever new plants are proposed, pro- and anti-nuclear groups are clashing.
In Missouri, rival coalitions have sprouted up to sway the Legislature and public opinion. Much of the debate is aimed at the legislation filed on Jan. 22, which deals with how to finance construction of another nuclear plant and broader utility regulation topics. On another level, it has become a referendum on nuclear energy.
The state Senate's Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and Environment Committee will give the bill its first hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Gearing up for the debate, labor and utility interests have formed Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, a group that also includes some former elected officials and area pastors, to lobby for the bill. They've emphasized the potential to displace older, dirty coal plants and create thousands of construction jobs.
Meanwhile, environmental and consumer groups blitzed across the state last week with Peter Bradford, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former utility regulator in New York and Maine. Bradford says he's ambivalent on the need for new nuclear construction but adamant that it's bad business to charge customers before the plants, estimated to cost $6 billion to $12 billion, are producing electricity.
To be sure, the public perception of nuclear power has improved over the past three decades. People under 40 may be more likely to associate nuclear plants with the harmless foibles of Homer Simpson than Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or the delays and cost overruns that accompanied the previous generation of plants.
Just as importantly, the urgency to halt or reverse climate change is bolstering the case for nuclear projects.
Power plants - specifically coal-burning plants - account for about a third of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions. And few states rely as heavily on coal as Missouri, meaning the era of cheap electricity in the Show-Me state could be short-lived if President Barack Obama makes good on his campaign pledge to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear plants don't produce CO2 or other greenhouse gases during operation. Nor do they emit mercury or sulfur dioxide. And some studies have shown that life-cycle carbon emissions from nuclear plants are on par with wind and solar.
"If we're serious about looking at our long-term future reduction of demand of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, there's a long list of national studies that says nuclear has to have a place in there," said Warren Wood, director of Missouri Energy Development Association, the lobbying association for the state's investor-owned utilities.
To be sure, while nuclear plants don't spew pollution from a smokestack, they're not environmentally benign.
"Nuclear certainly isn't a clean energy source," said Alan Nogee, Clean Energy Program Director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based watchdog group. "There are numerous attributes that clean and renewable energy sources share that nuclear doesn't."
Uranium is a finite resource that must be mined and processed for use as a fuel in nuclear reactors. Plants use large amounts of water for cooling. And unlike a solar farm or a windmill, a nuclear plant carries the risk - however small - of a dangerous radiation leak.
Perhaps the biggest issue is dealing with spent fuel. Nuclear plants also leave behind tons of toxic waste.
Since its startup, the Callaway plant 10 miles southeast of Fulton has stored spent fuel in a 30-foot-deep pool of water on site. AmerenUE has also been storing low-level radioactive waste at the plant site since a facility at Barnwell, S.C., banned out-of-state waste in 2007.
The Department of Energy has proposed establishing a long-term nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, about an hour and a half northwest of Las Vegas. But the Obama administration has already rejected that solution.
New Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, said last month at his confirmation hearing that nuclear should be part of the country's energy mix and plans to go forward with $18.5 billion in nuclear loan guarantees under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Chu, however, added that issues involving long-term waste disposal and the prospect of nuclear fuel reprocessing in the United States were "thorny issues" that needed to be addressed.
Other influential voices have taken a similar position, including billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens.
Pickens, who has spent millions of dollars pushing his own energy plan that relies heavily on wind, solar power and natural gas, agrees that there's a need for new nuclear plants because it's a domestic energy source.
"I do see it as 'clean energy,' but recognize the disposal issues associated with nuclear energy longer-term," he said in an e-mail response to questions. "It's an issue that I believe we can tackle."
For others, calls to move forward with a new wave of nuclear building without a long-term answer for waste disposal is pushing off an inevitable problem, again.
State Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, a member of the committee that will debate the controversial Missouri legislation this week, recalls the national debate over nuclear plants in the 1970s and 80s.
"In fact, it's how many years later, and that problem has not been solved," she said.