Austin Says, 'No, Thanks,' to Investing in New Nukes
City's decision based on an 'apolitical' financial risk analysis, Wynn says
New Jersey-based NRG Energy to the city of Austin: Yo, Austin, we know yous Texans need more energy, so boom! Bing! We're gonna add two new nuclear reactors down at the South Texas Project near Bay City. Whadaya say? You guys already own 16% of the thing, so how 'bout kicking in some cash like the $206 million your friend in San Antonio did and help us build this bastard?
City to NRG: Thanks for the offer, NRG, but we'll pass. You see, based on our figuring, this project looks like a shaky deal financially, not to mention (but we'll mention it anyway) that you declared bankruptcy in 2003. Given the fact that no one's built a new nuclear plant in the U.S. since, oh, around the time Frank Zappa last played here, we're pretty sure you're not going to complete this one on time and under budget. But hey, if you do manage to pull it off, give us a shout, and maybe we'll buy some energy from ya. Later!
OK, that's not quite how the exchange went, but Austin Mayor Will Wynn did in fact announce last Friday that the city would decline an offer to become an investment partner with NRG in the planned expansion of the South Texas Project, a nuclear power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston that supplies about 29% of Austin's electricity. NRG, which bought 44% of the plant in 2005, approached Austin last December about the expansion and gave the city until March 1 to reply. San Antonio's municipal utility, CPS Energy, owns the other 40% and quickly agreed to support the expansion.
In an interview, Wynn said Austin's decision was based on an "apolitical" financial risk analysis by Austin Energy and outside consultant WorleyParsons, who concluded the project's budget as well as its permitting and construction timetable were "overly optimistic." The mayor, however, left wide open the possibility of AE buying power from STP in the future. In the meantime, Wynn explained, the community will have a say in how Austin's energy is generated as the city prepares to kick off an "unprecedented" yearlong public-participation process late this spring to "help us decide what the future fuel mix of Austin Energy should look like as the city and community grow."
Wynn said Austin's current fuel mix is about two-thirds carbon-based, from traditional sources like natural gas and coal combustion, while most of the rest comes from STP's atomic energy. A small but growing portion (about 11% by year's end) comes from renewable sources – mostly wind power. AE is also a nationally recognized leader in implementing energy-efficiency measures. "We're doing a much better job reducing energy use per capita," Wynn said, "but our needs are growing. Clearly, we'll need more energy generation capacity sooner than later." With as many as 12 new reactors on the drawing board in Texas and as many as 24 more nationwide, atomic energy's critics are lining up with a litany of concerns, including the long-unresolved dilemma of how to safely deal with toxic and volatile nuclear waste, piling up at reactor sites in the absence of a much-delayed national repository. Green groups are also countering claims that nukes are carbon-free, pointing to the greenhouse-gas intensive practice of mining and refining the uranium needed to fuel the reactors. With a less than exemplary record for securing and overseeing the U.S.' existing nukes, critics question whether the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is capable of handling the anticipated flood of new permits.
Many local activists are still sore from the battle over the STP's initial 1981 construction, which, as Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith likes to point out, was eight years late and 600% over budget. Austin Energy's study said the STP expansion may exceed its budget by $1 billion. Many nuke foes also fault the fat taxpayer-funded incentives and loan guarantees offered by the federal government. The Lone Star Sierra Club has joined Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition to form Nuke Free Texas, now preparing to contest STP's permit with the NRC. National nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists has also come out against new nukes.
Austin forgoing participation in the STP expansion is no doubt just the first chapter in an unfolding drama over whether nuclear energy ought to be expanded domestically. Hotter than a barrel of fresh radioactive waste, the debate will center around greens' assertion that Texas' growing energy needs can be met without building new reactors or coal-burning power plants. Instead, enviros favor heavier investment in demand-side energy-efficiency tactics and accelerated development of renewable-energy resources. For more info, see www.nukefreetexas.org, www.ucsusa.org, and www.stpnoc.com.