JEFFERSON CITY • Gov. Jay Nixon set the stage Friday for another contentious debate over the future of nuclear power in the state by backing a deal that would help Ameren Missouri recoup $40 million in permit costs toward a second reactor in Callaway County.
Nixon pitched the proposal as a path toward economic recovery in the state while protecting Missouri — one of the most coal-dependent states in the nation — from higher costs that could come if Congress passes a carbon tax.
"The sooner the process is started, the sooner our state will reap the rewards," Nixon said.
Consumer groups were quick to criticize the proposal as a shifting of costs from Ameren, which recently received a rate hike and is seeking another one, to ratepayers struggling to make ends meet in a tough economy.
In 2009, Ameren backed away from plans for the $6 billion addition to its central Missouri nuclear plant. Lawmakers had refused to change state law to allow the company to finance construction of the reactor by charging consumers for those costs before the plant was online.
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But over the past several weeks, Nixon's staff has been meeting with Ameren, other state utility companies and union leaders to forge a pact to restart the process.
The new agreement, which Nixon announced on the steps of the Governor's Mansion, would limit the investor-owned utility's ability to recoup costs to only those related to obtaining a federal permit for the reactor. Nixon said the legislation he's proposing would cap the recouped costs to $40 million. Ameren already has spent about $70 million on the nuclear plant permit process.
"Consumers won't pay one penny unless (Ameren) gets the permit," Nixon said after having breakfast with utility and union executives, and two Republican lawmakers.
One of those lawmakers, Sen.-elect Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City, said he would carry Nixon's legislation. Nixon is a Democrat.
The governor and lobbyists representing utility companies said the cost of the proposed legislation to a consumer would be less than a couple of dollars per year.
Nixon said thousands of construction jobs could come to the state as a result of the project, a factor he said was key to his support for the plan.
Still, some of the same critics of the proposal from 2009 questioned why Nixon would seemingly change sides on the issue. In last year's debate, Nixon argued that there was no need to repeal the state's prohibition against "construction work in progress," or CWIP, financing, until Ameren Missouri had obtained the necessary permits.
"I met with the governor about that bill then, and he said he would veto it," said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. "And now he's flying around the state pushing it?"
Nixon said that two things have changed since 2009. First, Ameren Missouri has formed a coalition with other electrical cooperatives and utility companies that plan to invest in the nuclear plant. Second, he said his proposal doesn't require a repeal of the anti-CWIP statute, but "bifurcates" the process — splitting it and taking it one step at a time.
Nixon said the proposed legislation wouldn't necessarily create an exception to the CWIP law, but that's precisely what consumer groups are saying it would do.
"If you take a first step, you have to take a second and a third and a fourth, don't you?" said outgoing Sen. Joan Bray of St. Louis, who is chairwoman of the Consumers Council of Missouri. "This is not consumer-friendly, and we are not pleased with it."
Crowell had used his social media Twitter account earlier in the week to decry what he called Nixon's 'secret" plan to revive the nuclear debate.
Asked Friday about Crowell's criticism, Nixon said, "I think we'll get a substantive debate beyond 140 characters on this issue."
Noticeably absent at Nixon's news conference were any consumer groups, including a coalition of large manufacturing companies that are among Ameren's biggest customers. In 2009, those groups opposed the Ameren Missouri legislation.
Asked if consumer groups were involved in the negotiations, Nixon said: "I think they are extremely aware of where we are going."
One of the key consumer opponents to the 2009 legislation, though, said his clients received notification about Nixon's plan just a couple of days ago.
"We were simply told it was coming," said lobbyist John Coffman, who represents AARP and the consumers' council. "It was not a negotiation."
The president of a group that represents large utility consumers, Fair Energy Rate Action Fund, said his group was involved in discussions with the governor's office. David Overfelt said the consumer group is likely to support Nixon's legislation if it includes protections for consumers, which Nixon said it would.
Among the protections Overfelt said he is seeking:
• More funding for the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in rate cases before the Public Service Commission.
• A cap on the amount of money Ameren Missouri or its partners can seek in recouping funds for the site permit.
• A rebate for consumers if the plant is never built.
"The debate is just starting," Overfelt said. "I think the vast majority of our members will support (the legislation) if it has the protections we're asking for."