Bring It On

Why Houston should want a nuclear power plant

In fact, one of the country's most appealing markets for a new nuke is right here. Proximity to the natural gas fields of the Gulf Coast convinced investors in the '90s to bet overwhelmingly on gas-fired power plants in the Houston area, leaving us holding some of the stiffest energy bills in the nation. More piqued than anyone are the industrialists along the Houston Ship Channel, who need cheap power to compete with overseas rivals. A group of them joined with the U.S. Department of Energy last year to fund a feasibility study for a new nuclear reactor. Study co-author John Redding says, "There is no question about the economic feasibility of a nuclear power plant." He expects a consortium to move on a new plant "very soon."

Nuclear power is quietly making several other inroads in Texas. At the Houston energy conference last month, an official with reactor manufacturer GE Nuclear Energy disclosed that his company is studying building a new nuclear plant in the state. He wouldn't give details. Two weeks later, General Atomics of California announced a $3 million deal with the University of Texas to design a small helium-cooled test reactor for possible construction near Odessa. And Republican Representative Myra Crownover of Denton is planning exploratory hearings on nuclear power before her House Energy Resources Committee in May. There's no doubt that many Houstonians are ready for a power shift. Frank Bowman, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, recently pitched fission power to an attentive business crowd at the Houston Forum.

A few weeks later, President Bush beamed the pro-nuke message into the nation's living rooms. In his State of the Union address, he announced new funding for "clean, safe nuclear energy." The funds add to the administration's already hefty nuclear commitment: The Department of Energy's "Nuclear Power 2010" program is exploring new sites for plants and streamlining the regulatory process, and incentives for the nuclear industry in the energy bill Bush signed in August total $6.4 billion.

...but even so, Public Citizen director Tom "Smitty" Smith, at his recent press conference opposing coal power plants, didn't list nuclear power as an alternative.
Josh Harkinson
...but even so, Public Citizen director Tom "Smitty" Smith, at his recent press conference opposing coal power plants, didn't list nuclear power as an alternative.
Coal power plants in Texas account for nearly 20 percent of the state's greenhouse-gas emissions.
Josh Harkinson
Coal power plants in Texas account for nearly 20 percent of the state's greenhouse-gas emissions.

But powering the future also will mean wooing a skeptical American public. In one sign that anti-nuke sentiment is softening, however, some four-star generals in the environmental movement have called a truce with the industry. Environmental Defense director Fred Krupp is neutral on nukes. "I think we have to have an open mind" about the technology, Krupp told National Public Radio last year. "And we should not just throw it off the table from the get-go."

On a September afternoon in 1985, young Tom "Smitty" Smith was mere hours into his new job defending truth and justice for the Austin office of Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's consumer group, when he helped release Risky Business, a report claiming the South Texas Nuclear Plant in Bay City was a costly boondoggle destined to plunge state utility companies into financial sorrow. The group argued for junking the half-built reactor and burning more pulverized coal.

In one respect, Risky Business - more than the glossy reports of high-dollar energy consultants - was startlingly oracular: As it roughly predicted, the STP construction heaved in at a mind-blowing $5.5 billion over budget. But 20 years later, Risky Business nonetheless appears misguided. The same pulverized coal plants that it hyped as alternatives to nuclear - seven of them have been fast-tracked for approval this year by Governor Rick Perry - are being vigorously opposed by the balding, gray-bearded Austin director of Public Citizen, the very same Smitty Smith.

A few minutes before Smith kicked off the first of many anti-coal press conferences last month, he was wearing dress slacks under blue jeans. He hoisted himself into his jacked-up Toyota pickup. A dream catcher swung from the rearview mirror as he rolled toward the Governor's Mansion towing an old trailer that said in red letters on the side, "No more dirty coal!" Power plants stenciled near the words spewed painted smoke. "This trailer has now had, I guess, three different lives," Smith mused. It carried placards opposing war and placards supporting solar power, but Smith's anti-nuke placards were made even before the trailer's time before protest technology weighed so much. Smith double-parked near the capitol and hauled out a heavy bundle of rubberized plastic. "Hey, Neil!" he barked to a volunteer. "Will you help us get the power plant over here? That thing takes 20 minutes to inflate."

As a perspiring Smith unrolled the prop in a grassy square, annoyed media members gawked; a typo on the press release had sent them there early. They listened to a gas generator kick in and watched the plant puff 20 feet skyward. Each of four smokestacks displayed a little foreboding message: Asthma attacks. Acid rain. Mercury poisoning. Global warming. Smith returned to the trailer and handed a woman a tubular foam smokestack to wear, along with a gray cotton plume taped to a bike helmet. College students unfurled banners. Smith reappeared before the bulging plant wearing a crisp suit. Cameras rolled. Speeches gushed.

"Scores of new studies each year demonstrate that air pollution from coal-burning power plants is harmful to human health and that children are the most susceptible," Gregg Sheff, a lab-coat-clad member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the reporters as he held a cooing toddler. Mercury emitted from coal plants "is a potent neurotoxin that interferes with brain development, especially in the fetus," he said. Sheff's facts were hard to ignore: Environmental Protection Agency statistics show Texas leads the nation in mercury releases. The Texas Medical Association has called for a 70 percent reduction in the emissions. And yet a giant new coal-fired plant fast-tracked by Perry this year would emit more mercury than any plant in the nation.

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