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CPS soft-pedals nuclear expansion

 

CPS Energy announced plans at its November 24 board meeting to address San Antonio’s energy needs via an aggressive conservation plan and by building a new solar power plant. But beneath the glossy green veneer of its self-proclaimed environmentalism, the company continued to lay the groundwork for increased use of nuclear power in South Texas with expansion of the South Texas Project in Bay City. [See “CPS must die,” October 24, 2007.]

CPS didn’t come right out and open the meeting by pushing for STP expansion, of course. The nuclear option was cushioned with lots of happy talk about “aggressive” action to reduce consumer energy use and costs. But in the end, it was all building toward a nuclear-power pitch that failed to acknowledge nuclear power’s radioactive waste as a “risk factor” and that wouldn’t save residential consumers a dime for at least 32 years. CPS announced that it will wait until next fall, however, to make a decision about STP.

“This was the meeting where they were supposed to say they were going full blast ahead [with nuclear],” says Karen Hadden of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. She found some hope that “they gave themselves two major outs,” noting that CPS is waffling over the uncertainty of investor confidence and loan guarantees.

On the plus side, CPS is moving forward with a $685-million energy-efficiency plan that aims to curb San Antonio’s power usage enough over the next 12 years to avoid building a new power plant. But it appeared CPS is trying to greenwash the nuclear option by juxtaposing it with plans to get a solar power plant going by 2010 or 2011.

The beating around the nuclear bush began with an extensive report on the company’s energy-efficiency study by Nexant, a San Francisco-based energy-consulting company that was spun off from a technology consultant group of multinational corporate titan Bechtel in January 2000. Readers of John Perkins’ best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man may recall Bechtel being described as one of the world’s most powerful engineering and construction companies, “a prime example of the cozy relationship between private companies and the U.S. government,” with an executive staff populated by Reagan-Bush cronies.

After a cheery report by Terry Fry, Nexant’s Senior Vice President of Energy and Carbon Management on the “Demand Side Management Potential Study” (the City-owned utility could cut 569 megawatts by 2020 with “energy-efficiency technology” such as insulating older homes and changing out windows), CPS’s Paul Barham — senior director for electric generation research & planning — stepped in to lower the nuclear boom.

Barham touted the company’s goal of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions as part of its environmental commitment and said the STP expansion would help CPS cut 127 million tons of C02 emissions by 2033, as opposed to only 32 million through renewables or 49 million through the Save for Tomorrow energy-efficiency plan.

“Nuclear is the only one of these options that has no CO2 emissions,” declared Barham. He also noted that “solar and wind don’t look very cost-effective … but we do have a big place in our plan for renewables.”

Barham drove home his agenda with a selective “Risk Summary” that compared nuclear power to natural gas and coal in four risk areas: capital, technology, carbon footprint, and fuel cost. The lack of a fifth category for environmental risk left some in the audience scratching their heads, since radioactive waste can take anywhere from 10,000 to millions of years to decay. Nuclear received one red light for capital, with yellow for technology and greens for carbon and fuel cost, while natural gas received greens for capital and technology but yellow for carbon and red for fuel cost. Coal got two reds and two yellows.

In a later phone interview, Barham said environmental risk factors were considered and, “we don’t see a large risk around that.” He expressed confidence in a federal plan to dispose of nuclear waste and added that if that doesn’t work out, “we still have the ability to safely manage the waste on site.”

Uncle Sam’s current nuclear waste dump, the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, is already in jeopardy.

“It can take no more waste from the civilian nuclear industry without exceeding its statutory volume limit, and recent statements from the former US DOE project manager and a current NRC commissioner suggest the entire project may collapse,” said author and professor Jim Harding last year in a speech entitled “Seven Myths of the Nuclear Renaissance.”

Environmental-advocacy group Friends of the Earth recently reported that the DOE is predicting 108,500 shipments of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain will be required over 38 years but that the exact routes and methods of shipment to be used have not been identified because they don’t want the public to know.

Regarding the radioactive waste that every plant generates and stores in pools of water adjacent to the reactors, FOE’s new site Nuclearlie.org reports that the accidental or intentional draining of such pools “could lead to a serious fire spewing highly radioactive material into the air.” A report from Brookhaven National Laboratory found that such an incident could cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities, cause $59 billion in damage, and render 188 square miles unfit for habitation.

With environmental and public-health concerns off the table at CPS’s board meeting, Barham’s “show me the money” moment came with the unveiling of a projected monthly residential electric bill chart. While nuclear would cost consumers more than gas or coal for the first 19 years, Barham argued that it would become cheaper than coal after 24 years and cheaper than natural gas after 29 — excluding the eight to 10 years it would take to get nuclear plants up and running in the first place.

San Antonio will have a year to debate the matter, as Barham recommended that final Board and Council decisions be delayed until fall 2009 for further analysis. This will include factors such as “community involvement,” a new presidential administration with new energy priorities, additional clarity on federal incentives (probably the most critical factor from CPS’s perspective), Congressional action on natural-gas supply, and ongoing developments with project partners NRG Energy and Exelon.

Cindy Weehler of the Consumers’ Energy Coalition was on hand to remind us that Exelon is being sued by the state of Illinois for taking more than nine years to inform a local community about leakage of millions of gallons of radioactive water from its Braidwood nuclear plant into groundwater, drinking wells, and a forest preserve.

“All of that is code for nuclear,” said Weehler of Barham’s report to the board.

CPS board member Mayor Phil Hardberger was “unavailable to accommodate” the Current’s request for comment on the matter.

STP expansion appears to have backing at the state level, with Governor Rick Perry declaring just last week that the “federal government should focus on … removing regulatory barriers for new nuclear plants.” Perry seems to know a little something about cozy relationships between private enterprises and U.S. government. In August, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recommended that Waste Control Specialists receive a second license to operate a multi-million dollar, radioactive waste dump in West Texas’ Andrews County, despite objections from some of the commission’s own geologists and engineers. Waste Control Specialists is owned by Harold Simmons, a political donor to Perry, who appointed the environmental commissioners.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club is protesting the license since the Environmental Analysis prepared by TCEQ showed that basic facts about the proposed site — including its final design and radioactive safety program — had not been provided by the applicant, forcing TCEQ to add conditions to the license.

“[STP and the Andrews dump] are connected in the sense that the nuclear industry wants Waste Control Specialists to get their license,” says Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. Reed says Sierra Club’s argument against STP expansion is that it will be unnecesary if CPS follows through on its plans for energy conservation and use of renewables.

 “We don’t think [the STP expansion is] a positive investment for the people of San Antonio or the planet,” says Lara Cushing, environmental justice coordinator for the Southwest Workers Union, which has actively opposed the project. Cushing said SWU does see the new energy efficiency program as a step in the right direction and hopes to see meaningful public participation both there and in further analysis of STP.

“I think [CPS] can bank on citizen opposition during the hearing process,” promised SEED’s Hadden, “and they know they’ll have that opposition,”.

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