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Japan catastrophe amplifies local debate over expanded nuclear power

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

As Japanese officials struggle to contain fires and a potential core meltdown at the earthquake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, concerns about the safety of nuclear power have moved to center stage in Austin. And it’s possible that a proposal by NRG Energy to sell Austin Energy more nuclear power could be in jeopardy as a consequence.


NRG Energy, one of the owners of the South Texas Project in Matagorda County, has been lobbying Austin Energy to sign an agreement to get more of its power from two new proposed nuclear power generation units planned for the site. Austin already owns a 16 percent share of STP. The two parties are not currently in formal negotiations, however.


Tom “Smitty” Smith of government-watchdog group Public Citizen told In Fact Daily he hopes the recent plant explosions in Japan convince Austin Energy officials to abandon the proposal entirely. “We believe that the wise leadership (at Austin Energy) would walk away from further negotiations with NRG at this point,” Smith said.


Smith said that the situation in Japan is proof that there is no such thing as safe nuclear power, despite industry claims. He also said that the city should save the money it might spend on a purchase-power agreement with NRG and use it to follow the 2020 Generation Plan, which calls for the city to get 35 percent of its energy supply from renewable power sources like solar and wind by 2020. 


“One of the contentions that’s being played out right now is the question of whether it is possible to appropriately control a reactor after a fire and explosion and in particular if you can control multiple reactors after one of them has begun to melt down at that site,” said Smith. “And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already signaled they want to consider that issue while reviewing for the licensure of the new South Texas plants. And after the events in Japan, as they unfold, we expect that this will be a much more significant contention going before the NRC in the future.”


But NRG Director of Communications David Knox said it’s important to withhold judgment on the situation in Japan until after the facts are in.


“We feel there will time in the days and weeks to come to assess any impact on nuclear developments this disaster will have,” Knox said. “We want to take the time and understand what is actually happening, and we would recommend that everyone takes those days and weeks to assess what impact this has on everything. Our focus right now is on the safety of our friends and partners in Japan and all of the people of Japan.”


Knox did confirm a report that talks between NRG and CPS Energy of San Antonio had been suspended after the Japan earthquake. CPS had been in negotiations to purchase nuclear power from the proposed new STP reactors.


“We’ve been talking with CPS Energy about power-purchase agreements — what we were talking about with Austin Energy — and CPS and us mutually agreed to put things on hold for a little while and wait for the days and weeks so that we can assess if there is any impact on nuclear development,” Knox said. “So our conversations with CPS and Austin Energy are on hold, and while we have submitted a proposal to AE, it’s my understanding that they are considering that proposal.”


Or as NRG President of Advanced Technology Initiatives Juan Garza put it, “We were in a standstill with Austin Energy before, and we remain in a standstill with them.”


Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark told In Fact Daily that developments in Japan have not as yet changed where talks between his company and NRG stand. Austin Energy, he said, is still planning on talking with NRG in a few months.


“We needed some time to upload our load forecast and go through the processes to look at our needs and growth potential,” Clark said. “We told them a month ago we were going to take a few months. Nothing has changed; there was nothing ongoing.


“The Japan situation could impact a lot of things in a lot of ways. It’s just a wait-and-see situation. If the STP project continues to move forward and if NRG is interested in trying to secure purchase-power agreements, we’ll listen to their proposal.”

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