As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, a shocking vote tomorrow (Thursday, May 27) may rush $9 billion worth of taxpayer guarantees into building three new nuclear power plants -- two of them on that already tortured Gulf of Mexico.
Environmental and taxpayer groups (NIRS.org, PSR.org, Taxpayers for Common Sense) are posting alerts and circulating at least one letter asking House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI) to stop the handout. The public is being urged to contact Obey and other Representatives on the committee and in the House (202-225-3121). Shrouded in murky haste, the vote is currently scheduled for 5pm.
The bailout may be attached to an emergency appropriations bill meant to provide funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How that "emergency" relates to building new nuclear power plants remains a mystery.
Insider accounts say the bill may provide $9 billion in loan guarantees for two reactors to be built at the site of the South Texas Nuclear Plant, currently home to two aging reactors. Funding may also go to a new reactor proposed for Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, where two two-decade-old reactors are also licensed.
The move may be "balanced" with $9 billion earmarked for "green energy" proposals. But safe energy proponents dismiss that move as window dressing.
The frantic attempt to slip the loan guarantees into a military appropriations vote with minimal debate comes at an astonishing time for the energy industry. As with the Deepwater Horizon, which set off the current Gulf catastrophe, there are no reliable technologies capable of controlling a runaway reactor meltdown.
Nuclear proponents assure the public that the possibility of such an event is remote, but the public has been told similar things about deepwater drilling. And as with BP, owner-operators of the proposed new nuclear plants would enjoy strict limitations on their financial liability in case of a major catastrophe.
The South Texas Project has long been fraught with bitter controversy. The city of San Antonio was set to be a major investor, but pulled out amidst a raucous citizen-utility confrontation over soaring construction cost projections. The true nature of those costs continues to be immersed in angry recrimination and uncertainty. By all accounts the financial estimates for building the new reactors have soared by billions of dollars over the past few years and will continue to do so. How the Department of Energy would underwrite a project whose price tag remains a moving target would undoubtedly become the subject of years of litigation.
Just forty miles from the nation's capital, Calvert Cliffs is also immersed in contention. Baltimore Gas & Electric has filed for license extensions on the two reactors now operating there, whose continued operation depends on turbine trade-outs that may cost around $300 million. The site is notoriously anti-union. The proposed new reactor may come from AREVA, which would make it the first French commercial reactor built on US soil. A version of the design proposed for Calvert Cliffs is currently billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule as it's being built in Finland.
Both the South Texas and the Calvert Cliffs proposals have been hotly debated for years, with nothing resembling a public consensus in place. Neither has a reliable financial plan in place, and even the ultimate designs may be up in the air. What would suddenly give these loan guarantees "emergency" standing is a mystery.
The "green" aspects to this emergency funding proposal have also elicited puzzlement. Safe energy advocates point out that billions of dollars allocated for renewables and efficiency still sit unused at the Department of Energy. The allocations in this proposal appear to be spread out into the years to come, with a far looser timetable than the money allocated for the nukes.
Why a military appropriations bill would be used to deliver loan guarantees for new nuclear plants at a time like this will demand some hard answers down the road.
In the meantime, the green power community will be going all out to prevent them from slipping through.