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STNP owners’ poll indicates interest in Austin using more nuclear power

Friday, January 7, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

NRG Energy Inc. is once again asking the city to consider purchasing more of its energy from the South Texas Project nuclear power plant. Though City Council rejected two previous proposals to invest in the building of two additional units on the site in Matagorda County, this time NRG Energy is armed with polls it says prove that Texans and Austinites want nuclear energy to play a role in the city’s energy future.


According to those polls, released yesterday, 83 percent of Texans and 64 percent of Austinites “believe that nuclear energy should play an important role in meeting the future energy needs of Texas.” The polls also show strong support for the proposed expansion of the South Texas Project from two units to four (STP 3 & 4).


A press release accompanying the poll data stated that those two additional units would “generate approximately 2,700 megawatts – enough to power more than two million Texas homes.” It addition, the units would provide 800 full-time jobs and 6,000 temporary construction jobs “at the peak of the four-year construction.”


A summary of the Austin survey, which was conducted by telephone between Nov.19 and 22, claims, among other things, that 70 percent of Austinites favor Austin purchasing additional nuclear power from the South Texas Project. Meanwhile, 76 percent of those polled said they would favor Austin Energy purchasing power from STP 3 & 4 after learning that the utility is already purchasing power from STP 1 & 2. Those units currently provide about one quarter of the city’s electricity.


As the city attempts to move toward more carbon-free and renewable sources of energy, perhaps the most significant bit of data from the poll indicates that 75 percent of Austinites favor purchasing more power from STP when they know that nuclear plants are cleaner than coal and natural gas plants because they don’t produce carbon emissions.


“The environmental benefits of nuclear energy are at the forefront of Austin’s strong support on this issue,“ said Mark Littlefield, CEO of Littlefield Consulting, which conducted the Austin poll. “Austinites recognize the need for more power generation, but also express their concerns that this new generation be environmentally friendly and reliable, which respondents recognize as two strong benefits of nuclear energy.”


Tom “Smitty” Smith of government-watchdog group Public Citizen told In Fact Daily that those claims about environmentally friendly nuclear energy are not only false but show the NRG poll to be biased in favor of the South Texas Project.


“The generation nuclear energy – what goes on in the reactor – is carbon-free, but the mining, refining, and disposal of the waste emit significant amounts of carbon,” Smith said. “The construction and destruction of the plant emits a significant amount of carbon. One ton of cement poured equals one ton of carbon dioxide. Plus, there’s the problem of nuclear waste, which has not been resolved 60 years after the discussion about using nuclear power began.”


Smith also took issue with other questions asked in what he called a “push poll” designed to lead participants toward particular responses. For example, the poll claims that 75 percent of Austinites are more likely to support Austin purchasing more nuclear energy from STP after hearing that nuclear power plants “generate reliable electric energy at a stable price.”


Neither Smith nor Public Citizen takes issue with that claim, but Smith said what the poll question fails to mention is that the “stable price” of nuclear energy for consumers (about eight cents per kilowatt-hour) is twice as much as the price of natural gas (four cents) and more than twice as much as the price of carbon-free renewable energy sources such as wind and solar (three cents).


“The question deceives customers by not stating that the real cost of a nuclear power plant is the construction costs, the capital costs, which are not reflected in the price Austin Energy typically shows for fuel on their monthly bills,” Smith said. “The real cost of a gas plant is the fuel, but nuclear and coal plants have high capital costs and relatively low fuel costs.”


Rather than asking Austin Energy to invest directly in the nuclear plant, like it has in the past, NRG is instead proposing a “purchase power agreement,” whereby the utility would buy a specified amount of energy at a set price for decades. NRG needs to secure agreements with customers in order to get federal backing for the expansion of the plant.

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