Nuclear plant expansion moving forward

October 9, 2009 11:27:41 AM PDT
Sunshine and wind may be plentiful in Texas, but they aren't enough to power the city of San Antonio, according to officials backing a $13 billion effort to expand a South Texas nuclear plant into the largest in the nation. Months of escalating debate over plans to double the number of nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project to four is leading up to a city council vote this month over whether to invest another $400 million to keep the project on track.

Mayor Julian Castro supports the city-owned utility's nuclear expansion, while nuclear power opponents and environmentalists worry that the plant may be vulnerable to terrorism and say the project conflicts with the city's green efforts.

"I think the last 20 years have provided a chance to reality test that we have a safe, reliable source of power in nuclear energy," Castro said.

When announced in 2007, the expansion plan marked the first licensing request in nearly 30 years to the federal government for new nuclear reactors. The South Texas Project is one of four proposed nuclear sites picked for U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantees.

Located about 90 miles southwest of Houston, the plant expects to have the two new reactors up and running by 2018. The four combined units will produce 5,700 megawatts of energy, making the South Texas Project the largest nuclear power plant in the nation, facility spokesman Buddy Eller said.

Opposition and concerns over costs have shadowed the plan, which is a partnership between Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Energy Inc. and CPS Energy, San Antonio's city-owned utility.

CPS Energy interim general manager Steve Bartley told city leaders this week the expansion could be part of a "nuclear renaissance" in the country. Bartley said the nuclear expansion will provide affordable, carbon-free energy for a predicted energy shortfall starting around 2020.

"We believe nuclear is the best long-term solution," Bartley said.

San Antonio already gets about one-third of its power from the South Texas Project's two reactors, which were built in the 1980s. But the push for nuclear expansion comes as San Antonio is trying to become one of the nation's greenest cities under an ambitious plan rolled out this year.

The Mission Verde plan would transform the nation's seventh-largest city into an oasis of green jobs and renewable energies such as solar and wind power. City Councilwoman Mary Alice Cisneros has raised questions about whether the nuclear expansion contradicts with the city's green agenda.

Nuclear opponents have called it flat-out hypocrisy.

"San Antonio could be the greenest city in North America, easily, if they fund this same money appropriately," said Karen Hadden of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition.

CPS officials, though, say power solely from wind and solar sources is not yet efficient or cost-effective enough to meet the city's large energy demands. The utility said putting the same amount of money toward solar power instead of nuclear, for example, would produce just one-fifth of the energy.

Castro called the nuclear choice practical and noted the utility is putting at least another $5.7 billion toward expanding renewable options like solar and wind power and other environmental upgrades.

The city council is set to vote Oct. 29 on whether to approve the $400 million needed to keep the project going and settle on CPS having a 20 to 25 percent ownership stake in the two new reactors. That is down from the original 40 percent investment the utility sought.

Bartley said "recessionary effects" have led the utility to try and sell down its original 40 percent stake. CPS said it will begin looking for a buyer, and NRG Energy spokesman Dave Knox said plans for the plant will move forward regardless of what the city decides.

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