Approve it, with conditions

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When the county commissioners sit down next week to make a decision on the nuclear power plant proposal, they will face the classic quality of life versus jobs dilemma.

We have no problems with nuclear power, per se. Probably the most heavily regulated and monitored industry in the country, it really is a safe industry despite what the scaremongers say. The new third- and fourth-generation reactor designs are extremely safe.

For the people who live near the proposed site, they fear a massive disruption of the idyllic lifestyle they enjoy in that area. Yet the "footprint" of a nuclear plant, unlike something like a coal-fired plant or a concrete plant, really doesn't extend beyond the boundaries of the plant grounds. Once built, it would be fairly seamless we suspect. During the several years it would take to build the plant, the disruption to the lifestyle of the people who live in the area would, admittedly, be extremely severe. In that respect, they have a very legitimate concern.

The developer stresses the economic virtues of the plant, which, if it actually ever gets built, would be significant, although it would not solve the current economic problems of the area, since the real impact would be years down the road.

First, the plant will probably cost between $6 billion to $10 billion when all is said and done (the developer currently doesn't have close to that amount of financing, but hopes to raise it if the rezone is approved). That would more than double the taxable assessed valuation of the county, and because of limits on budget growth, your county taxes would drop considerably.

Second, for the first couple years, until the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives the green light for construction, the number of jobs the plant would create is small, perhaps 30-40 over the next year or two, and most fairly specialized (experts in geology, seismology, etc.). Once construction begins, up to 5,000 jobs would be created, during the several years it would take to build the plant. Most of those job types can be found locally. That's significant.

Once built, several hundred jobs, only a small fraction requiring specialized degrees in nuclear engineering, would be created. Some, such as security positions, would require that people be able to obtain a security clearance, something a lot of people in this area have been able to do in the past. There aren't many businesses around here that employ more than 100 people. This also, would be significant.

So we believe the county should approve this rezone, but only under certain highly restrictive conditions.

First, that only the AEHI nuclear plant proposal could be built on the land. If the company sells, the land reverts to an ag zone and the process starts over.

Second, if the plant is not built within a reasonable period of time (say seven years), the zoning expires and again reverts back to ag land.

Third, all state and federal agencies must sign off on the plant or the land reverts to ag zone. Those agencies have far more expertise in determining if this is a technically valid proposal than anybody here does, so passing it along to them makes sense, which is what a conditional rezone approval would do. In fact, if the land problems are as severe as the opponents claim, then the Nuclear Regulatory Agency will say no within one to two years and the issue is over.

If, and this is a big if, this proposal clears all the state and federal hurdles, which will take years and scores of further hearings, then the potential economic value is worth the limited risk.

-- Kelly Everitt