Federal aid sought to build nuclear reactors in Missouri

Westinghouse Electric Co. and Ameren Missouri announced Thursday they would seek federal funds to help build a new generation of smaller and safer nuclear reactors.

If Westinghouse wins some of up to $452 million in investment funds from the U.S. Energy Department, then St. Louis-based Ameren would apply for licenses to allow up to five 225-megawatt reactors to be built at the company’s nuclear power plant in Callaway County.

Callaway’s current reactor is nearly 30 years old and generates more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

In addition to boosting energy production at Callaway, Missouri also could turn into a hub for manufacturing the new reactors — known as Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, or SMRs — to be exported around the world, Gov. Jay Nixon said.

Unlike traditional nuclear reactors, which must be built on site, SMRs are manufactured at a production facility and shipped wherever they’re needed.

“This investment is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that could spark a next-generation manufacturing industry in Missouri,” Nixon said at a news conference at the governor’s mansion.

He later added: “This is our moment to bring these jobs to the state.”

Nixon did not speculate on how many jobs could be created if the plan was successful or what the economic impact could be for the state.

Westinghouse plans to submit its application for federal funds in mid-May, and the grant is to be awarded this summer.

The reactors could be constructed in 24 months after the company received all the necessary licenses. The grant calls for the nuclear plant to be in service no later than 2022, said Kate Jackson, Westinghouse’s chief technology officer.

“The award of investment funds could help ensure that Westinghouse be the first mover in the SMR market, secure the global export home base for Missouri and create the potential for emissions-free base load energy for Ameren Missouri,” Jackson said.

The effort is being backed by several Missouri utilities, including Kansas City Power & Light, which is contributing a small but unspecified amount of money to help Ameren obtain the license to build the plant. The contribution gives KCP&L the option to later take a small ownership stake in the nuclear plant, although it is under no obligation to do so.

Chuck Caisley, a spokesman for the local utility, said it was important to maintain the nuclear-energy option in the state, adding it would be “transformational” if Westinghouse built the nuclear reactors in Missouri.

“We think that is fabulous,” Caisley said.

Ameren has been pushing for an early site permit to build a second large reactor at the Callaway plant for several years. The company hoped to get an exemption from state law barring utilities from charging customers for the costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity.

However, the effort repeatedly ran into legislative gridlock as industrial companies and consumer groups objected to potential rate increases for a project that might never take place.

But one of the main organizations that helped block Ameren’s efforts to change state law praised Thursday’s announcement.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to finance construction of new energy resources in our state, and this is the right way,” said Chris Roepe of the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund. “The announcement today helps establish an energy plan for Missouri that will include an ample, reliable source of electricity while also protecting Missouri ratepayers.”

Ameren president and CEO Warner Baxter said his company was suspending its legislative efforts and would instead focus on the new partnership with Westinghouse.

Not everyone, however, is on board with the idea.

Ed Smith, safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said investments in renewable energy could create thousands of jobs without the risks associated with nuclear technology.

“It’s maddening our state’s elected officials are pursuing risky nuclear power technology when there is no plan for the safe storage of the toxic radioactive waste piling up at the Callaway One nuclear reactor,” Smith said

Interest in building nuclear plants has been in decline after the meltdown of reactors in Japan about a year ago following the devastating earthquakes and tsunami that slammed the island nation. Since then, for example, a Texas utility canceled plans to build two nuclear plants.

The nuclear industry maintains that the problems at the Japanese nuclear plant — triggered when a power outage disabled safety systems — could be avoided by new designs that rely on passive safety systems.

Westinghouse’s small modular reactor would have safety systems used on the company’s larger AP1000 plant, which has a vast reservoir of water above the reactor. Should the normal safety system fail, the water begins to fall, cooling the reactor.

There’s enough water to cool the reactor for 72 hours. That gives plant operators three days to fix the active pump systems, or at least refill the reservoir for another 72 hours of safety.

Ellen Vancko, nuclear energy project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it was impossible to analyze the new small reactor’s safety systems until the design was licensed. But what already is clear, she said, is that Ameren and Missouri are embarking on financial folly.

Some estimates peg a small reactor’s cost at $5,000 per kilowatt, which would put a price tag of more than $1 billion for Ameren’s proposed 225-megawatt nuclear plant. By comparison, KCP&L’s new coal-fired plant cost $2 billion for 850 megawatts.

Vancko said other electric utilities are using cheaper natural gas, which has made nuclear energy especially uneconomical. In addition, renewable energy and energy efficiency would be more inexpensive alternatives.

“Why would Ameren and Missouri want to pursue one of the most expensive options?” she asked.

But Adam Heflin, chief nuclear officer for Ameren, said the best route for the utility was to keep all options open: nuclear, natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Westinghouse’s Jackson said she was confident the company would receive funds from the federal government, but even if the company didn’t the project would move forward in some way.

“Westinghouse is committed to SMR technology, and we absolutely need a utility partner to ensure the design is fit not just for Missouri but for the globe,” she said.