Nuke proposal meeting draws fans and foes


Anton Caputo
and Vicki Vaughan
San Antonio Express-News

BAY CITY - Business and political leaders of this rural Texas region lined up Tuesday to tell federal regulators they welcome NRG Energy's plan to build two more nuclear power reactors at the nearby South Texas Project.

"We've all heard of NIMBY - not in my backyard," said Bay City Mayor Richard Knapik. "I stand for PIMBY - please in my backyard."

Elected officials and those in the economic development community who attended the Nuclear Regulatory Commission scoping meeting echoed Knapik's sentiments.

The meeting was set to discuss environmental issues associated with the proposed expansion of the South Texas Project from two reactors to four. San Antonio-based CPS Energy would be a likely partner.

More than 200 people attended the afternoon session, the first of two three-hour meetings scheduled Tuesday. Many disagreed with the focus elected officials put on the economic gains promised by a major expansion of the nuclear facility, arguing that it took the focus off safety, security, water availability from the Colorado River and the lack of a long-term plan to store the tons of radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants.

"We don't believe that nuclear reactors are the right path to take at this time," said Karen Hadden of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

The nuclear power industry in the United States has been at a virtual standstill since the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. A combination of the need for clean energy in the face of global climate change and economic subsidies and incentives in the 2005 Energy Act has re-energized the industry, putting the South Texas Project expansion at the forefront of what some term a nuclear renaissance.

In Bay City, public officials warmly endorsed expanding the facility, speaking of it as a project that could offer future generations of local children a reason to stay close to home when they reach adulthood and need to find good jobs.

"STP has been an amazing corporate citizen and brought amazing economic strength," said Owen Bludau, executive director of the Matagorda County Economic Development Council.

Bay City resident Susan Dancer, who was in high school when the first two power plants were being built, had a different take. Dancer said she remembers all the hype about the economic boom in store for the community and said residents should be more wary this time around.

"Our unemployment rate is still high," Dancer said.

"Our school district is still extremely poor, and the owners and the operators of the plants still don't live here."

Dancer said the community was disturbed in 2005 when NRG Energy said it would outsource 117 jobs out of about 1,100 at the two power plants.

"Where is a 50-year-old engineer going to go? Some people were 20 years into a 30-year mortgage and they were in a state of shock."

Dancer said a grass-roots organization she founded, Matagorda County Coalition for Nuclear Industry Accountability, seeks a binding agreement with South Texas Project management to guarantee that the jobs for the new reactors would be kept local.

STP President and CEO James Sheppard acknowledged that management considered outsourcing jobs in 2005, but he said the company ultimately decided not to pursue that plan.

"We intend to be here for the next 60 years," Sheppard said. "The vast majority of our employees have to be here."

CPS Energy owns 40 percent of the two power plants currently operating at the South Texas Project and is considering partnering in the proposed expansion. The utility's board recently approved $206 million for preliminary design work on the two new plants, which are tentatively scheduled to be running by 2014 and 2015.

Several members of the San Antonio-based Southwest Workers' Union made the 200-mile trip to voice their opposition to the proposed expansion. They were particularly upset with the way CPS Energy has, in the organization's opinion, stifled public participation in its decision-making process.

"We have been left in the dark," said Genaro Rendon of the Southwest Workers' Union.

Like many at the meeting, the union pushed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require NRG and CPS Energy to fully investigate alternatives to nuclear power, particularly solar, wind and energy conservation, as part of its environmental review process.

Tuesday's meeting was intended to give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission input on the types of issues it should include in the plant's environmental impact statement. The whole permitting process could easily take more than three years, said federal officials, particularly since the agency has suspended work on the safety portion of the permit application because of incomplete information.

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