TXU's Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Glen Rose, Texas is the company's sole nuclear power plant. (Courtesy of nukeworker.com)
When the National Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense helped broker the 32 billion dollar takeover of Texas energy giant TXU, environmentalists hailed the deal as historic. But now. as TXU moves away from coal and towards nuclear power, the two environmental organizations are starting to re-think their positions on nuclear energy. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman reports.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Back in February, when two private investment firms announced they were buying TXU- the largest electric company in Texas for 32 billion dollars, climate activists were quick to hail it as historic. The buyout deal was brokered in part by two of the nation’s biggest environmental groups. In their negotiations Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council had gotten TXU to scrap plans to build eight new coal fired power plants. Plants that would have doubled the company’s emissions of global warming gases. But now, other environmentalists are calling the buyout a sellout because instead of burning coal, TXU has plans to build the nation’s largest nuclear power plants.
Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman has our report
GELLERMAN: Here’s how the TXU deal went down:
Environmental groups opposed to the utility’s plan for new coal plants launched a fierce legislative and legal campaign. That drove down the price of the company’s stock, and made TXU a tempting takeover target. That’s when the investment firms: KKR and Texas Pacific Group stepped in. But Texas Pacific Vice President, William Reilly, who once headed the EPA and the World Wildlife Fund knew the deal was dead unless the buyers got the green light from environmentalists. So Reilly called up the group Environmental Defense—which was leading the charge against TXU.
MARSTON: They told us that, ah, number one they didn’t want to be in a battle with the environmental community.
GELLERMAN: Jim Marston is Director of climate initiatives at the Texas office of Environmental Defense.
MARSTON: They also didn’t want to own a company that was seen as, maybe, public enemy number one among the electric industry on global warming and they had a new business model and they would only go forward if the environmental community would review and comment favorably on their plan.
GELLERMAN: Marston flew to San Francisco and negotiated with the investment companies while a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council joined in by phone. It was a marathon session. NRDC attorney Geoff Fettus says dozens of issues were discussed with one notable exception.
FETTUS: As far as I understand it the nuclear issue did not come up.
GELLERMAN: That’s the same way Jim Marston of Environmental Defense remembers it; the TXU buyers never mentioned nuclear power.
MARSTON: It might have been in the back of their minds or maybe even the back of my mind. We actually had literally one day a long day, 17 hours but it, negotiations, focused on some narrow things.
GELLERMAN: The environmental groups got TXU’s buyers to scrap eight planned coal power plants to double investment in renewable energy, bolster energy efficiency, and agree to mandatory caps on greenhouse gasses.
But TXU’s plan for more nukes was the elephant in the room.
KLEKNER: Nuclear power has always been on the table.
GELLERMAN: TXU spokesman Tom Klekner.
KLEKNER: Certainly anyone looking at acquiring TXU would know that we had ah, plans on the drawing board to develop additional nuclear capacity
GELLERMAN: In fact, just five months earlier TXU had announced plans to build as many as five more reactors. And Klekner says those plants are still needed.
KLEKNER: Bear in mind that Texas has, the demand continues to increase, our reserve margins of power in the state are below minimal acceptable levels.
GELLERMAN: So last month just weeks after the takeover deal was made public TXU announced it was buying the first two of its planned new reactors. If they’re built, they’ll be the largest in the US.
That’s left environmentalists who weren’t involved in the talks thinking it might not be such a great deal after all. Dan Becker is with the Sierra Club.
BECKER: Well coal is bad and nuclear power is worse. There are four major problems with nuclear power: waste, costs, terrorism and accidents. So switching from coal to nuclear power is like giving up smoking and taking up crack.
GELLERMAN: Becker says the biggest problem with nuclear energy is it’s just too expensive. That’s one of the reasons there hasn’t been a nuclear reactor built in the US in 30 years. But recently the federal government has stepped in to tip the balance. Craig Stevens is a spokesman for the Department of Energy.
STEVENS: The federal government is trying to create, ah, an environment where a nuclear renaissance can flourish.
GELLERMAN: The 2005 energy bill provides billions in subsidies for nuclear plant construction. But Stevens says the benefits will only go to the first few companies that qualify.
STEVENS: We recognize that the first few may see legal delays or bureaucratic delays that simply aren’t the fault of the utility, and if they experience these, they’re gonna lose funding. So we want to make sure we protect them so they actually move forward.
GELLERMAN: And in striking its deal to buy the new reactors, TXU hopes to step to the front of the line for those subsidies. Other Texas utilities are also jockeying for position. If all of the nuclear plants now being considering in the state are built, the number of reactors would triple in just ten years and Texas would lead the nation in nuclear power.
Proponents say this makes good environmental sense because nuclear plants don’t emit any greenhouse gases. But Geoff Fettus of the NRDC isn’t buying it. And, he says just because his group endorsed the TXU buyout, doesn’t mean it’s giving the company a pass on nuclear power.
FETTUS: There are cheaper, cleaner and faster ways to go about reducing global warming pollution rather than provide significant subsidies to a mature industry like nuclear power.
GELLERMAN: But polls suggest public acceptance of nuclear energy is growing and the recent Supreme Court decision requiring the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions is adding impetus to the industry. And now even the NRDC’s negotiating partner in the TXU deal is re-thinking nuclear power. Jim Marston of Environmental Defense.
MARSTON: We have come to the conclusion that the threat of global warming is so severe and the time for action is so short that we have to look at all low carbon options again including nuclear.
GELLERMAN: For Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman
[MUSIC: The Six Parts Seven “Saving Words For Making Sense” from ‘Everywhere And Right Here’ (Suicide Squeeze/Touch & Go – 2004)]
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