FULTON, Missouri – Ameren Missouri’s lone nuclear plant, about 20 minutes southwest of Fulton, in Callaway County, has been quietly producing electricity for more than 30 years.
Although Ameren gets 19 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, the utility plans to look elsewhere for new low-emission alternatives to coal.
The boom in hydraulic fracturing — fracking — has driven down the prices of natural gas, greatly undercutting nuclear, which is notoriously expensive to start up. If Callaway wanted to expand, “with the cost of natural gas being cheap, we’d build a natural gas-fired plant,” Mike McLachlan, senior director of engineering at Callaway told a group of journalists and University of Missouri journalism students during a tour Jan. 29. The tour was part of a conference looking at the future of nuclear power.
In 2013, Ameren saw the U.S. Department of Energy pass up its application for a new small modular reactor program near Callaway. The federal funding instead went to a program in Oregon.
Without those grants, Ameren and utilities like it might look to avoid new nuclear because they have to foot the bill from the outset. Since 1976, utilities in Missouri have been unable to pass the construction costs of new nuclear plants on to customers before the plant starts up. When a new plant can cost several billion dollars, that’s a big obstacle. Compare that to a new natural gas, where McLachlan said, “a 500-600 megawatt plant is about $600 million.”
For comparison, the company that did receive the federal grant from the Department of Energy told the Associated Press the small modular reactors are projected to cost about $2 billion, $8 billion less than conventional plants.
Compared to that, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power offer considerably cheaper startup costs, but natural gas has undermined them as well. “When the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not making wind power; when the sun’s not shining, you’re not making solar power,” McLachlan said. Natural gas “can run 24/7.”
Still, the Callaway plant is set to continue operating for the foreseeable future. Ameren is currently upgrading its facilities in accordance with post-Fukushima protocols. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently extended Callaway’s authority to continue operations for another 20 years. And, even as coal plants are phased out in accordance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, Callaway Nuclear Plant can continue generating power like it has since 1984.