Nuclear plant to be multibillion-dollar choice


Robert Rivard
San Antonio Express-News

The public conversation about expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear facility has been surprisingly low-key. On the other hand, this isn't a debate about a new sports arena or protecting trees.

This is about complexity: the city's future energy sources in an uncertain global marketplace weighed against the unprecedented cost of the expansion, and other community investments San Antonio will have to forgo if it commits to expansion.

Mayor Julian Castro and others I've spoken to in the leadership community tend to frame their eventual decision as an economic one that can't be made until CPS Energy puts a price on the project. Preliminary estimates by pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear interests have varied wildly from the $20 billion range down to last week's estimate of $10 billion made by the builder, NRG Energy.

The CPS staff will deliver its much-anticipated estimate at the June 29 board meeting. After that, expect the public conversation to intensify in advance of a City Council vote in the fall.

Readers should assume the project is going forward.

Perhaps some officials will balk at the eventual price tag or react to strong public opposition, but the project will have strong backing from CPS, which already has invested more than $200 million in pre-expansion studies and preparations.

Advocates make a strong case for nuclear plant expansion. Opponents make a strong case for seeking alternative energy sources and embracing conservation.

The distant construction and completion dates, the maze of regulatory issues and the unreliability of cost estimates leave people confused.

That should change after June 29 when people get a better handle on the magnitude and timeline of the project.

The city of San Antonio owns 40 percent of the nuclear South Texas Project in Bay City, and would probably have a larger ownership stake in an expansion of the facility since the city of Austin has opted out of expansion to meet its future energy needs. Right now CPS relies on nuclear for about 36 percent of the electrical power it distributes, a percentage that experts believe is at the core of why San Antonio enjoys some of the best electricity rates in the nation.

Yet the South Texas Project's final cost was somewhere between 368 and 600-plus percent over budget by the time of its completion, depending on the government agency you believe, with construction lagging years beyond the projected completion date. Ground was broken in 1976, but the plant did not begin operating till 1988.

Cost overruns delayed service, yet STP eventually resulted in a reliable source of cheap energy. So it isn't simple, is it? It gets even more complicated if we stop looking back at the 1970s and fast-forward to future expansion, which will not be completed until 2016 under the most optimistic scenario.

CPS officials believe they will secure a federal permit for plant expansion by late 2011 or 2012. NRG believes it can construct the new plant in only four years. Critics predict it will take a decade.

Then there is the question faced by all nuclear nations and that is one of safely storing spent nuclear fuels.

Lots to talk about.

Robert Rivard is the editor of the Express-News. E-mail him at rrivard @ or follow on Twitter at @editorrivard.

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