JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Debate about nuclear power plants shifted Wednesday to the Missouri Senate as a committee considered a couple of proposals that would allow utilities to charge electric customers for some costs of developing the facilities.
Missouri's utilities are asking the Legislature to allow them to charge customers for the cost of an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A state law approved by voters in 1976 currently bars utilities from charging customers for the costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity.
Power companies and other supporters of the legislation contend the early site permit is needed to move forward toward possibly expanding nuclear power in Missouri. However, consumers and industrial energy users are concerned about protections for ratepayers.
Warner Baxter, the president and CEO of Ameren Missouri, said the utility has spent $25 million toward obtaining an early site permit. He said an average residential customer would pay less than $2 per year for the permit.
"We are talking about preserving an option here," Baxter said.
Consumer groups called for a limit on how much customers could be billed, a rebate if the plant does not come online and a change in funding for the state public counsel representing ratepayers before state utility regulators
"If Ameren is going to get what it wants, then we need to make sure that the ratepayers get what we want and we need," said Joan Bray, the chairwoman of the Consumers Council of Missouri.
The nuclear plant legislation has become a marquee issue this year, and a crowd of spectators spilled out of a Senate committee room and into a Capitol hallway. Others watched from a nearby overflow room. The Senate committee met for more than six hours as numerous people stepped forward to testify late into the night Wednesday.
Last fall, a group of utilities that includes Ameren Missouri, Empire District Electric, Kansas City Power & Light, electric cooperatives and municipal utilities announced 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.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has said allowing utilities to charge for the permit 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, about 25 miles northeast of the state Capitol.
Senators on Wednesday considered two bills that would allow power companies to get reimbursed for the early site permit through the utility rates approved by state regulators. A key difference in the Senate bills centered on consumer protections.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, would cap costs that can be recovered at $45 million and require a refund if the plant is never built and state regulators determine that it should have been constructed. The other bill, sponsored by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, would set a cap at $40 million and has a refund provision. That bill also spells out a system for utilities to pay assessments for the public counsel, who represents consumers before the Missouri Public Service Commission.
Crowell estimated the public counsel could get about $3 million per year under his bill. Utilities expressed concern about the assessment portion.
Nixon's proposed budget calls for doubling 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.
Public Counsel Lewis Mills said Nixon's proposed budget increase was adequate.
"My office is underfunded and we need some more people, and it's up to the Legislature to decide how to get those people, how to get those funds," Mills said.
Crowell, who is the chairman of the Senate committee that was considering the legislation, told reporters after the hearing that he did not know when the panel might vote on the nuclear plant legislation and what that bill might look like.
A House committee last month endorsed legislation that does not address funding for the public service commission. The House bill would require utilities to explain to the Public Service Commission if the permit was to cost more than $40 million.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)