Though the nuclear discussion in city circles has cooled dramatically since CPS Energy extracted itself from a 50-percent share in the proposed doubling of the South Texas Project nuclear complex down to a mere 7 percent, the project’s key boosters have continued scrambling to make the project as attractive as possible to the U.S. Department of Energy and — more recently — the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. To pretty-up the massively expensive project (in the course of the local debate, it shot from around $8 billion to $18 billion), NRG and Toshiba have rounded back on Austin, hoping to win a change of heart from a newer mayor and council. Years back, the city, a 16-percent partner in STP’s Units 1 and 2, voted not to partner on the expansion, citing concerns for both likely cost overruns (how prescient) and the troubling question of how to dispose of the high-level radioactive waste that is left behind.
While San Antonio leaders were once supportive of the plan, a leaked $18-billion price tag inspired a $32-billion lawsuit and allegations of fraud and conspiracy. Not good pickings around here for today’s nuclear road show — even with recent talk about the possible early retirement of one or more of our coal plants. While the DOE has an estimated $10.2 billion to dole out to some lucky nuke owner/operator, Japan Bank is now considering throwing another $4 billion into the deal, in what would be the first loan of its kind for the import-export bank. “Japan has sought to lead the nuclear industry through investment, training, and reactor sales to Asia,” Purdue University political science prof Daniel Aldrich told Bloomberg News late last year. “Expansion into the U.S. is only a continuation of this trend.”
Only Japan Bank doesn’t want to jump unless the DOE is in the mud with them. “They are definitely waiting for DOE,” said Michael Mariotte, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a staunchly anti-nuclear nonprofit now rounding up organizational support in a letter-writing campaign opposing the loans. A signal from DOE may drop any day, according to Mariotte. “The next loan agreement is likely to be for South Texas, and it’s likely any day. I’m told by people who should know that the South Texas application went into its final stage in mid-December.”
So it could be days or weeks — or never. “It could still fall apart … we’ll just have to see,” Mariotte said. From the vantage point of Alamo City taxpayers, the temptation now is to root either for no project or a wildly successful one. After all, 7 percent of $18 billion isn’t peanuts. With an old Government Accountability Office report suggesting that about 50 percent of recipients of nuclear loan guarantees will likely default, some may be interested to join NIRS’ effort (nirs.org) to send Japan a signal from South Texas. A February 11 report by Mark Cooper at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment suggests that the upward cost spiral for nuclear plants is far from over — and that climb is coinciding with a sustained drop in the cost of energy from natural gas and other technologies. Which brings us to the ultimate question: if the plants won’t be ready til nearly 2020, by which time their prices will likely be undercut at every turn, what kind of taxpayer-backed boondoggle is this?