David Hendricks: Alarm bells should be ringing over nuke project

David Hendricks
San Antonio Express-News


The recommendation that Austin not join as a partner in the South Texas Project nuclear plant expansion should ring alarm bells.

So should the way CPS Energy is providing information to San Antonians in a series of poorly attended open houses.

San Antonio's utility currently is positioned to own half of the $6 billion-plus expansion planned for completion in 2015-16 near Bay City.

Austin's City Council is voting tonight on a recommendation by Austin Energy to not invest in the construction of the third and fourth units of the nuclear plant. The capital city and its utility own a 16 percent interest in the first and second units.

An Austin Energy consultant has told the city that the new units would cost $1 billion more and construction would last two years more than projected by CPS and its partner, NRG Energy Inc.

News articles this week about the recommendation have the same tone as articles 30 years ago when Austin became nervous about its participation in the first two units. Costs were escalating out of control as permitting and construction fell eight years behind schedule.

Austin voted in 1981 to pull out of the South Texas Project, but the city could find no buyers for its share.

Twenty-seven years later, the South Texas Project's first two units have proven themselves environmentally and economically. Those good results are more serendipity than good planning.

Even the Austin American-Statesman admits that San Antonio electricity bills are cheaper than Austin's, in part because of CPS' 40 percent share in the first two units.

Whenever the plant has shut down for maintenance, bills have risen dramatically because participating utilities must burn relatively expensive natural gas to replace the nuclear power.

Previous criticism of nuclear power has grown more muted amid ongoing climate change blamed on fossil fuels.

In 2008, both cities - especially their business communities - are wondering how their electrical power in the next decade will be generated.

CPS already is spending $206 million on a preliminary design for the nuclear expansion. Yet given the plant's history and Austin's decision, San Antonio needs to proceed with flexibility and openness - even taking into account the initial project's current success.

CPS executives already are admitting that the initial $6 billion price tag for the expansion will be low. How much higher can it go? What is a realistic completion date? What will it mean for future electricity rates?

It is too early to say, CPS says, even as the utility holds public information sessions at four San Antonio sites.

If alarm bells are ringing, no one is hearing them.

Only about 20 people attended the CPS energy-future open house Tuesday evening on the Northeast Side after the location was switched four days earlier. Somehow, media alerts issued by CPS were not successful.

The open-house formats are of dubious value anyway. CPS offers exhibits with information about its future alternatives, and executives are available to discuss the issues with visitors. Visitors also can fill out comment cards.

CPS trustees do not attend the open houses, although they can see the comment cards later. CPS spokeswoman Theresa Brown Cortez said the utility prefers to let customers visit with executives one on one instead of at public forums that invite disruption or protests.

The public, however, deserves to know the questions other people ask and the answers. CPS ought to put the comment cards on its Internet site, www.citypublicservice.com, along with the best answers the utility can give.

Meanwhile, the last CPS open house is set for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 11 at Holmes High School at 6500 Ingram Road. Cortez warned that working with public schools is challenging and that the public should check the utility's Internet site in case the location changes.

San Antonio, Austin and the other initial South Texas Project partners went through extended torture with the nuclear plant's first phase. CPS and NRG Energy should avoid the past mistakes of underestimating costs and construction time.

The best way is an open, honest and transparent planning process.

dhendricks @ express-news.net

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