The New York Times
 
January 27, 2005

Mississippi Extends Hospitality to Nuclear Power

By MATTHEW L. WALD
 

 

PORT GIBSON, Miss., Jan. 20 - Facing the possibility that a utility company would try to build a new nuclear reactor here, the City of Port Gibson and surrounding Claiborne County moved swiftly last month to protect the interests of their residents.

"We're willing to do whatever it takes to do to make this happen," said Amelda J. Arnold, the city's mayor. Last month, city aldermen voted unanimously to urge the Entergy Corporation, which already operates one reactor here, to build a second. The County Board of Supervisors did the same.

The posture here is starkly different from that in New York, where town and county governments are trying to close two Entergy reactors at Indian Point in Westchester County. Around the country, supporters and opponents of nuclear power are newly energized because the economics for new reactors is no longer so unfavorable. With the nation's 103 power reactors turning into antiques - the newest design in service was ordered in 1973 - some utilities want to replace theirs.

In three places, nuclear plant operators have applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for "early site approval," which would give them permission to build on particular sites anytime in the next 20 years.

The furthest along in that process is Dominion Power, at North Anna, Va., about 40 miles northwest of Richmond, where it already operates two reactors. But Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear operator, is not far behind with an application to build an additional reactor at its site in Clinton, Ill.

Entergy has mapped out a spot here, 25 miles south of Vicksburg, adjacent to the company's 20-year-old Grand Gulf reactor, near the banks of the Mississippi. Exelon and Entergy are part of a multicompany consortium, called NuStart Energy, that is seeking to prepare a license application for a plant, and Dominion Resources has established a partnership with General Electric for the same purpose, although no company has committed itself so far to ordering a reactor.

Entergy's proposed site is in a region acutely sensitive to the price of natural gas, which has tripled in price in the last few years. Now it also has public support from local governments looking to create new jobs and more tax revenue.

Local support is not enough to induce a company to take the billion-dollar plunge, but it helps. "You can get a federal license, but ultimately we work and live in these communities," Gary J. Taylor, president and chief executive of Entergy Nuclear, said in an interview at the company headquarters in Jackson.

Mr. Taylor's company expects to spend about $10 million to get early site approval and an additional $7 million on the consortium seeking to develop an application, two steps that he hopes will cut at least three years off the plant-building timetable.

At Exelon, John Rowe, the chief executive, said the company might order a new reactor as early as 2010. Older plants face retirement, natural gas is expensive, and at some point, concern over climate change will give nuclear power an edge, he said; one way would be for the government to give tax credits to reactor operators as it does to windmill operators.

"My company, as long as I run it, will never make a decision except on the hard-boiled economics," Mr. Rowe said in a telephone interview. "But we believe, and, praise the Lord, the president of the United States believes, if we want to have a lower carbon future, a new generation of nuclear plants will be an essential part of that."

In Port Gibson, people cite many advantages and many disadvantages to nuclear power, but they do not mention global warming. James E. Miller, the county administrator, said the county taxes on a $150,000 house here were $50 a year, compared with $500 to $800 in surrounding counties, because of tax revenues from Entergy. But the unemployment rate is still in the double digits, Mr. Miller said, and a new plant would bring jobs to the county.

Whether attitudes here are typical of the rest of the country is an open question, but a decision to build will not require a national consensus. Here most reactions run from enthusiastic to ambivalent acceptance.

"I helped build Grand Gulf and I feel that it is safe," said Edward Carter, 48, a former ironworker who now coordinates an annual music festival for the county. A new plant would mean jobs, tax revenues and a steady stream of visitors to this out-of-the-way town, he said. "I understand that it would be a prototype, so people from all over the world would come to see it," Mr. Carter said.

Patricia Crosby, director of Mississippi Cultural Crossroads, a storefront arts agency on Port Gibson's faded main street, said of the possibility of a new reactor, "It's not my cup of tea, but there are certain realities here." Her organization gets $12,000 a year in financing from the county, support that would be impossible without the nuclear plant, she said. County officials refer to the elementary, middle and high schools as "100 percent schools," which means every child gets a free lunch.

Mayor Arnold said Entergy had "pretty much adopted all three schools." At least 100 local residents are among the company's more than 700 employees, and Entergy pays about $680,000 a year in city taxes, more than a third of the budget. "I want to build a police station, a fire station, I want two new fire trucks, five new police cars, and an overhaul of the water pipes," Ms. Arnold said.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of a new plant. Eric Torrey, 23, a senior at Alcorn State University near here, looked up from his turnip greens at the Grant's Place restaurant and weighed the added annual tax revenue to the city, perhaps another $600,000, against the possibility of a nuclear accident. "If it does happen, it's not going to be worth the $600,000," Mr. Torrey said.

"It would put us on the terrorist map," he added.

Outsiders think the time may be coming for a new plant somewhere. "The industry wants to do it," said David Chisel, a senior consultant at Synapse Energy Economics, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., that has done work for many clients who oppose nuclear energy. "The government is giving them some subsidies towards studying it. The N.R.C. probably wants to issue the licenses. And with high natural gas prices, they've got an incentive."

In Washington, antinuclear groups tried to enter the licensing hearings at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission so they could present the argument that building another reactor in Claiborne County, which is about 85 percent African-American, was an example of "environmental racism," putting undesirable facilities in poor, minority towns. But the mayor, the county supervisor and the Entergy vice president at Grand Gulf, all African-American, rejected that idea.

Along with residents here, another group wants a new reactor: people who have dedicated decades of their professional lives to a field that now threatens to become irrelevant. A new plant order would be vindication for them.

"There's a lot of talk now that within the next 10 years, someone's going to do it," said George A. Williams, the Entergy vice president assigned to Grand Gulf. "And I'd love it to be here." But for the experience of the last 30 years to be directly helpful to a new generation of plants, the order would have to come soon.

"The talent is starting to get a little gray," Mr. Williams said.