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Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005 10:15 am

Cart before the horse

Nuclear-power consortium targets Alabama and Mississippi for first new reactors

In the nomenclature of the nuclear industry, it’s called an early site permit, or ESP. It’s an apt acronym: You have to be clairvoyant to figure out what’s going to happen if the feds grant such a permit for a new reactor in Clinton, 60 miles north of Springfield. But opponents of the pending permit say that the future looks bright. The cause of their quiet celebration? A Sept. 22 announcement by NuStart Energy, a consortium of nuclear-power companies that says it will seek permits to build new reactors in Alabama and Mississippi. That, claim anti-nuke activists, means that Exelon, which organized NuStart, is focusing its energies elsewhere. “Apparently we have been heard,” says Sandra Lindberg, founder of No New Nukes. But it’s too soon to declare victory and start building windmills. “ ‘Cautiously optimistic’ is a good way to describe it,” says Brendan Hoffman, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen, based in Washington, D.C. Exelon calls such sentiments misplaced. “There’s no change in the probability — it’s exactly the same as it was a year ago,” says Craig Nesbit, an Exelon spokesman. “We’ve said from the beginning that our intent in naming the Clinton site for an early site permit is so we could go through and understand the early siting process. We have no plans to build a plant there.”
Of course, any company that would go through the time and expense of applying for a permit just so it could understand the permit process would soon go out of business. Nesbit acknowledges that the company’s plans may change. “If Exelon chooses to, this is where we would expect to build,” he says. “We don’t know what the future holds.” Exelon is one of eight energy companies in NuStart, which says it wants permits to build at least two nuclear plants, a task so expensive that industry experts doubt that it can be undertaken by one company alone. At the same time, Exelon on its own is seeking an ESP for Clinton. The company says that it won’t build anything in Illinois until the consortium’s plants are built with the use of new technology still under development that Exelon hopes will serve as blueprints for more plants. That could take a decade or even longer. Exelon will have plenty of time if the feds grant an ESP, which identifies a site as environmentally sound and gives a permit-holder the go-ahead to apply for construction permits. An ESP is valid for two decades and may be renewed for another 20 years, which would give the Clinton site a shelf life of 40 years. The upshot is, anti-nuclear activists old enough to remember the near-disaster at Three Mile Island or the days when Jane Fonda didn’t need a facelift to play a television journalist in The China Syndrome may well be dead of natural causes before a new reactor at Clinton is operational. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Exelon is getting while the getting is good. The company is the first in the nation to apply for an ESP, a permit type created back in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was in office. With a Bush once again in the White House, the feds are smiling on atomic energy in the form of multimillion-dollar grants to kick-start a moribund nuclear-power industry. In the case of Clinton, Exelon has received a $6.3 million grant, nearly half the cost of preparing its ESP application. Nesbit says that the Clinton project “doesn’t really rotate on the [federal] money,” although he acknowledges that “it certainly makes it easier to do.” Anti-nuclear activists say that spending millions of tax dollars on a project that may never get off the drawing board is just plain silly. “We think it’s ridiculous that taxpayers are paying for this in the first place,” Hoffman says, “and then, if they’re not even going to use it, that’s just a tremendous waste.”
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