JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri legislation sought by utilities as a potential first step toward a new nuclear power plant could be headed to the full Senate for debate.
A Senate committee has signed off on measure, and the chamber's leaders say the full body could debate the bill as soon as this week.
Missouri 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 with possibly expanding nuclear power in Missouri. However, consumers and industrial energy users are concerned about protections for ratepayers.
Missouri currently has one nuclear power plant, operated by Ameren Missouri, in Callaway County.
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.
Gov. Jay Nixon endorsed the idea last fall, and a House committee has approved it. Since then, the public discussion has trailed off. House leaders now say that before advancing their version they want to see what senators do, and progress in the Senate has been much slower.
The idea has received a new start after a Senate committee tacked it onto a different measure and endorsed it. The Jefferson City News Tribune reported that Senate leaders say the measure is ready to be debated.
"I'm not opposed to nuclear power expansion," said Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. "My main concern is how do you pay for it?"
The legislation would cap the costs that can be recovered at $45 million. If utilities get the permit but never build the nuclear plant, state regulators would need to hold a hearing to determine if the decision is proper and could order the power companies to return money to their customers if they determine the facility should have been built.
Ameren Missouri officials say the utility already has spent $25 million toward obtaining an early site permit. The company said an average residential customer would pay less than $2 per year for the permit.
The bill's supporters say building a second nuclear plant would create jobs and boost economic development. They say the legislation is needed to keep that option open.
Some of the stiffest criticism about the legislation has come from an organization that represents consumers and industrial energy users. The group, called the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund, says the legislation would hurt electric ratepayers.
"It is unfortunate adequate provisions were not added that will protect consumers who are being forced to pay for this early site permit, especially with no guarantee a new plant is built," said Chris Roepe, the group's director.
Nuclear plant is SB48
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