Lawmakers, Ameren continue plans for second Callaway plant

By Matthew Patane

JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri lawmakers and Ameren Missouri have not given up their plans to pursue building a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County, despite recent problems at a Japanese nuclear power plant.

Last week, a Senate committee heard testimony from both supporters and opponents of the proposed second Callaway plant just two days prior to a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan, causing three reactor explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Even though these explosions have spotlighted potential problems with nuclear plants, Ameren, the state’s main utility provider, and its legislative supporters have not changed their stance on legislation dealing with plans for another nuclear plant.

Ameren’s Business Operations Supervisor, Rick Eastman, said that Japan’s problems with its nuclear reactors have not impeded the company’s promotion of legislation pushing for an early site permit needed to begin construction of a second plant in Callaway County.

Eastman also said Ameren has several safety procedures in place to deal to deal with emergency situations, including those caused by natural disasters such as an earthquake or tornado. These safety precautions include steel-enforced concrete walls, seismic sensors, backup generators as well as the ability to shut down the plant if anything “out of the ordinary” is noticed.

“If there is anything that might threaten the plant, the first step is to shut the reactor down,” Eastman said.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, the sponsor of the bill, agreed with Eastman and said Missouri’s energy future cannot be influenced by international events and that the option for nuclear power has to be left open.

“We have to continue to talk about what sources of energy we are going to get for this state,” Kehoe said. “The unfortunate incident in Japan has not changed the fact that coal is a very expensive source that is under attack from various groups from A to Z, so the way we produce power in this state is, unfortunately, not going to be changed by what happens globally, and the demand for power in this state is going to continue to be there and continue to be a need that we need to address.”

So far the Fukushima plant in Japan has suffered from three explosions, which have severely damaged three reactors and caused a fire in a fourth. Following last Friday’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the Fukushima plant’s cooling systems failed, causing spent fuel rods to spike in temperature, cracking the casings around the rods. Once the casings around the rods became damaged, Japanese officials believe that the rods, after coming into contact with the steam released hydrogen gas, which was then vented out of the reactors and caused the explosions.

Eastman, said that the utility provider is waiting for the legislation to make its way through the General Assembly so the company can keep the option of building another plant open. If the proposed legislation passes, Ameren would be allowed to apply for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well as charge its ratepayers an additional two dollars for up to 20 years to pay for the construction of the new nuclear facility.

“No decision to build a second plant has been made, the whole legislation regarding the site permit is simply to keep the option open as we continue to look at what’s the best thing to do for Missouri’s energy future,” Eastman said. “If we were to push forward with approved site permit legislation and Ameren Missouri were to file for an application [to build a plant], part of what we would use the three year NRC review time for is to look at all of the various technologies.”

Kehoe said that despite general safety concerns, due to strict safety standards in the country, any nuclear plants that Ameren would build would be sufficiently safer then the Fukushima plant in Japan, which was built in 1967.

“It would be irresponsible for someone to say there are no safety concerns,” Kehoe said. “There are always safety concerns when you build any kind of project…I think the facilities that we would go forward with would be engineered through the early site permit process to withstand any possible acts of nature that we could have.”

The Fukushima Unit 1 reactor follows the Genereal Electric Mark 1 reactor design, making it a boiling water reactor meaning that the coolant water for spent fuel rods is also used for the steam turbine system, causing a high probability of radioactive contamination of the water. According to a report released by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nuclear energy information and watchdog group, there are 23 similar reactors in the United States, four of which are located in Illinois. Unlike these reactors, Ameren’s current Callaway plant is a pressurized water reactor, which separates the coolant water from the steam turbine system, reducing the risk of radioactive contamination.

At the committee hearing last Friday, Ameren’s CEO, Warren Baxter promoted the benefits of a potential second Callaway plant in front of the Senate committee.

“[A site permit] gives us the opportunity to access federal incentives, which can save our customers money,” Baxter said at the hearing. “Certainly there is no doubt that a nuclear plant could present a great economic development opportunity by creating thousand of clean energy jobs and hundreds, if not more, permanent jobs in the future.”