A first step toward a second commercial nuclear power plant in Missouri demonstrates how controversial and complicated the issue can be.

A coalition of Missouri utilities wants to be able to charge customers the cost of obtaining a permit for the site of a potential second nuclear power plant. Ameren Missouri operates the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant. Ameren President Warner Baxter told House Utilities Committee members they are considering the long-term energy security of the state.

“Most importantly, House Bill 124 will preserve an important, future generation option for the state; and that’s nuclear power,” Baxter told the committee. “Which may well emerge as Missouri’s best strategy to maintain our already low rates in this state.”

It could cost as much as $45 million to obtain the early site permit, only the initial step in construction of Callaway II, which could cost $5-to-$6 billion.

And as the coalition of utilities testified in favor, a loose coalition of businesses, consumer and environmental groups testified against. The hearing at the Capitol drew an overflow crowd, displaying the intense interest in the subject.

Kathleen Logan Smith with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment sees the early site permit bill as a first step toward repealing Missouri’s law that bans a utility from charging customers the cost of building a power plant while under construction.

“HB 124 is the first step to a full fledge repeal of our most cost-effective consumer protections ever, saving Missourians $400 million on Callaway I,” Smith stated.

Missouri voters in 1976 approved a law that prohibits utilities from charging customers for the cost of a new power plant during construction. It’s often referred to as the anti-CWIP law; CWIP standing for construction work in progress. An attempt to repeal that law has been suggested in the legislature, but has never gotten very far in the process.

The coalition of utilities is led by Ameren and includes Kansas City Power and Light, Empire District Electric and the Associated Electric Cooperatives. That coalition has been in talks with opponents and has actually come close to reaching a compromise on the issue. The utilities have agreed to cap the cost of seeking the permit at $45 million and have agreed to rebate the cost of the permit if the nuclear power plant is never built.

One sticking point remains. Opponents want a more secure funding source for the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers during utility rate cases before the Public Service Commission. A proposal by Governor Nixon to increase funding for the Public Counsel hasn’t been acceptable to opponents who claim the governor is merely taking money from the PSC to give to the Public Counsel.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:30 MP3]