Missouri lawmakers consider nuclear power legislation

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. | A group of Missouri electric utilities urged state lawmakers Tuesday to allow them to charge electric customers for some of the costs of developing a second nuclear power plant in the state.

The proposal drew criticism from consumer and environmental advocates. Officials from several businesses, including Monsanto Co. and the Ford Motor Co., expressed concerns about funding for the state office that represents utility customers before state regulators.

A 1976 voter-approved law currently bars utilities from charging customers for the costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity. The House Utilities Committee considered legislation Tuesday that would allow power companies to recoup from customers the cost of getting an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has endorsed the proposal, saying it would start the process toward building a power plant in central Missouri that would create thousands of jobs. The state’s only nuclear power plant is in Callaway County, which is about 25 miles northeast of the state Capitol.

A group of utilities that includes Ameren Missouri, Empire District Electric, Kansas City Power & Light, electric cooperatives and municipal utilities announced in November that they were considering seeking an early site permit for a second nuclear plant. The permit would not specify a plant design or authorize construction, and the group has said it has not decided whether to build a second plant.

Warner Baxter, president and CEO of Ameren Missouri, estimated residential customers would pay less than $2 per year for the cost of the permit under the proposed legislation. He said approving the legislation would signal to utilities that policymakers support moving forward with nuclear power.

“Customers will not see one penny on their bill until we have the site permit in hand and, secondly, until the Public Service Commission does a thorough review of the costs,” Baxter said.

Some local officials and several labor unions also support the legislation.

Sponsoring Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, said electric customers ultimately could pay less money by starting sooner to pay for some of the costs of developing a new power plant. Similar legislation also has been filed by Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City.

Some critics contend the bill would shift to electric customers the risk of building a nuclear power plant that might never be developed.

The Fair Energy Rate Action Fund, which includes consumer groups and employers, called for more consumer protections. Among the desired protections was a change in funding for Office of the Public Counsel, which represents electric customers before the Missouri Public Service Commission.

Nixon’s proposed spending plan for the 2012 fiscal year starting in July would double the budget for the Office of the Public Counsel to $1.4 million. It also recommends cutting the budget for the Public Service Commission by $1.5 million.

Critics of the nuclear power plant legislation said that budget proposal could leave state utility regulators weakened.

Steve Spinner, director of energy and utility procurement for Anheuser-Busch, said energy users need both the Public Service Commission and the public counsel to be strong. Spinner testified Tuesday for the action fund and another group for industrial energy users.

Under the legislation, utilities would be required to submit reports detailing how much has been spent and completed toward obtaining the early site permit. The cost for the permit would be added to the electric rates that must be approved by state utility regulators.

Missouri lawmakers in 2009 considered legislation designed to help build a nuclear power plant by letting utilities seek permission from state regulators to add the financing costs for certain types of new power plants onto electric bills before plants are operational. That proposal bogged down amid opposition from some in the Legislature.