News » The QueQue

The price of a nuclear divorce and the elephant in the room

Nobody puts Baby in a corner

For two weeks now, the local press has been rife with speculation that the City might kill CPS Energy’s nuclear-expansion deal with NRG Energy. That agreement, to evenly split an 80-percent stake in two additional reactors at the South Texas Project in Bay City and bring in a third party or two for the remaining 20 pecent, has already been drastically revised: Earlier this year, Mayor Julián Castro announced that he favored a smaller buy-in, and in October, economic pressures caused CPS’s own board to vote to reduce its share to 20-25 percent. Then, mere days before the City Council was scheduled to commit to a decisive $400 million in additional debt for the project, City Hall learned almost by accident that the estimated price tag had ballooned from $13 billion to $17 billion — a number Castro and other council members have said is out of our budget — and CPS appeared to have been in no hurry to share the news with our elected reps.

CPS management is in Japan this week, trying to buy back some credibility — and a firm-ish $$ estimate by December 31 — while the talk at home is of divorce.

But here’s the hitch: We can’t just walk away from our contract with NRG like a Las Vegas bride.

Two days before he boarded a plane for some sure-to-be heated negotiations with reactor manufacturer Toshiba, CPS Energy’s VP of Nuclear Development, Bob Temple, laid out the city’s options: ditch it, try to sell it, or put the project on ice.

“We could agree with our partner to suspend the project while we sort things out,” Temple said. But CPS was pushing Council to sign off quickly on the $400 million to preserve our front-runner status before the NRC and the Department of Energy — the latter of which has short-listed the STP expansion for federal loan guarantees because we’re running with a pre-certified reactor design and a pre-fab location. Pressing pause would likely mean losing those advantages.

“If you don’t care when your project gets done,” Temple said, “then `the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will` put people on other projects where folks are trying to get it done quickly.”

We could also try to sell our entire share, as we were already fixin’ to do with 25-30 percent of our stake. Temple likens this to unloading $6.5 billion worth of real estate.

“It’s very hard to tell, but I think there would be interest in a project like this, but it’s very unique,” Temple said, “so we’d really have to get out in the marketplace and see.”

Thanks to the previous decision to sell down our share in the expansion, CPS has already started shopping for buyers, and recently retained investment bankers and advisers to assist in that search. But to pursue this option, the City would still have to keep up with its current 50-percent share of the development until a deal is completed, which could mean passing not just one, but two $400-million bond issues along the way with no guarantee of a final sale.

“If our partner wants to continue developing the project, in order for us not to default and have our partner walk away, we’d have to continue to fund development,” Temple said. ”I don’t think it’s good for the citizens of San Antonio for us to hold a fire sale, if `the City Council` want us to sell the interest. So, I’d like a little bit of time so we can get true buyers rather than walk away from it.”

And what would walking away mean?

“We have to pay our proportion of interest up to the time we withdraw and we have to give some notice of that,” Temple said. Our contract with NRG Energy contains no specific penalties for dumping the deal, but it would come at the price of lost investment. Not only would we be saying farewell to about $300 million spent on the project to date, but the value of the STP 3 and 4 site itself is far greater, Temple says — somewhere between $500 million and $1.5 billion.

But whatever advantage the anti-nuclear camp has gained from City Council’s bruised egos, nuclear power could still be on the table come January if the CPS reps return from Japan with the right numbers and a way to let City Hall save face. Especially if our City leaders fail to use this time to forge a reasonable alternative-energy strategy to weigh it against, both in terms of cost and risk.

Follow the Current’s coverage of the CPS proposed nuclear-power expansion, and our in-depth look at the unaccounted-for cost of nuclear energy, online at sacurrent.com/cpsenergy.asp.

Throwing a Fitz

Local union reps are leaning on our county and criminal district judges to put Bexar County Probation Chief Bill “On the Fritz” Fitzgerald on administrative leave rather than allow the target of several state and federal lawsuits to serve out his time until a planned January retirement.

Fitzgerald — whom Current readers will recall from our series of stories detailing the department’s knowing use of faulty drug tests and a rash of employee discrimination and harassment charges — resigned early this fall after the misdemeanor judges voted not to retain him. `See “Test-tube maybes,” October 3, 2008.` But his effective retirement date is not until January 1, 2010.

Adult Probation Local 9528 filed a letter with the judges this week in response to the firing of a union member on Tuesday.

“This is what we warned them was going to happen,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, a consultant for the Local 9528. “We said, ‘Hey, once `Fitzgerald` is forced out, he’s going to try to take a few people with him.’”

The letter urges the judges to put Fitzgerald on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation of the various lawsuit claims and other employee complaints.

“The judges’ job is either to hire him or fire him,” Chavez-Thompson said. “But there’s nothing in the rules that say they can’t have some sort of investigation regarding this, and they have not done that.”

Had the felony court judges followed the lead of the misdemeanor judges in August, Fitzgerald would already be history. But an attempt by 379th District Judge Ron Rangel to call for a performance review was unexpectedly pulled from the judges’ agenda after Fitz proffered his retirement.

“I think what was in the letter was about right,” Rangel told the QueQue. “You want somebody who is there full-time. The taxpayers are paying somebody, you want somebody who’s going to go full-steam. ... If some of the other judges get on board, I think that’d be great. It’s been in the talks, I know that there’s been some movement. But I don’t know how successful we’ll be.”

In the meantime, the hunt is on for Fitz’s replacement — we like to think of him/her as the Cleaner.

“I know we’re taking applications,” Rangel said, “but I don’t know if anything’s been done in terms of interviewing anybody yet.”

Lucky of the draw

“Ladran, Sancho. Señal que cabalgamos” (“When the dogs bark, it is because we are working”), said Don Quixote, according to the QueQue’s dubious English-translation copy of the Cervantes classic (we would’ve preferred “advancing” to “working,” but you get the idea).

After a press conference Friday at the San Antonio Zoo — where activists demanded that Lucky the Asian elephant finally be retired to a sanctuary `See “Free Lucky! Then what?” July 30, 2008, et al.` and the Zoo cease to collect pachyderms — the first person to bark was Zoo director Steve McCusker, who told the Express-News that those who demand to see animal records (especially Lucky’s) “will never get them.”

His excuse: “They would utilize those documents for all the wrong reasons and don’t have people capable of interpreting them.”

Just like Lucky, McCusker (who refused to speak to the Current after the conference) is showing signs of stereotypical behavior. Lucky sways her head like other animals under stressful conditions; McCusker exhibits the paranoid behavior often seen in sloppy zoo, shelter, and animal-sanctuary people who claim transparency and legitimate animal love, but who refuse to release documents that would give us an idea of how many animals have died in their care and why, and what shape their current wards are in.

The press conference — which followed a recent demonstration at City Hall and a candlelight vigil at the Zoo — was called by In Defense of Animals, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, and VOICE for Animals, and starred IDA wildlife biologist Anand Ramanathan and former San Antonio Zoo veterinarian Mel Richardson. Lucky has been at the SA Zoo for 47 of her 49 years, and since the death of her companion Alport in 2007, she has been living alone. According to  a complaint filed by IDA with the USDA on November 2, and backed up by ZCTF research, her half-acre enclosure is too small and barren, and doesn’t have enough shade.

“It’s time to give Lucky a break,” said Catherine Doyle, IDA captive-elephant specialist. “She’s done her time.”

Calls to release Lucky from indentured servitude have increased in urgency because the Zoo’s planned expansion of its Africa Live! exhibit likely means phasing out Asian elephants entirely — making Lucky a lonely, short-term tourist placehoder. But at last week’s press conference, McCusker said that was untrue.

“We’re committed to keeping Asian elephants,” McCusker told the E-N.

But that doesn’t jibe with statements McCusker made to the Current in July 2008: “The plan is to get one or more Asian elephants, which is not as easy as it sounds,” McCusker said at the time. “Then, when the time is right, move those animals out so we can get in there and do some total Phase Three construction. When that is completed, we’ll bring elephants back, but they’ll be Africans.”

A call to the Zoo Monday to iron out the apparent contradiction/change in policy was rebuffed.

“Most zoos don’t want to get rid of elephants, I believe, because they’re afraid less people are going to come through the gate,” said Richardson, who was with the San Antonio Zoo for five years.”

“`The Zoo is` very nervous about people knowing how many animals have died,” Richardson added. “The USDA doesn’t even know how many animals died. This was the last zoo I’ve worked in, and after this, I said ‘no more.’”


comment