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Nuclear unclear

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The issue of nuclear power has radiated controversy for years, and despite some failed efforts in the past two legislative sessions to encourage the building of a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma, it’s not likely that the state will see such a facility in the near future.

The last major push to have a nuclear plant in the state was Public Service Company of Oklahoma’s proposed Black Fox nuclear power plant outside of Inola. That proposal met with intense public outcry and was scrapped in the early 1980s.

After the energy debate began to intensify a few years ago, Oklahoma state legislators introduced several bills focusing on nuclear energy and clearing a path for the creation of nuclear power plants. Only one, a measure allowing municipal power authorities to purchase energy or purchase an interest in nuclear power, made it to Gov. Brad Henry’s desk, where it was vetoed.

Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, who last session authored one of the bills encouraging nuclear power, said he would probably not introduce a similar bill this session.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has said he supports nuclear power as an alternative energy source, and announced loan guarantees for the construction of two new reactors in Georgia. John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the planned reactors will be the first built in the U.S. in more than 30 years, and are the first of a possible four to six new reactors expected to be completed by 2017 or 2018.

However, even if legislation encouraging implementation of nuclear energy in the state is passed this session, advocates and opponents of nuclear power have said it will likely be several years before any ground is broken on a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma, if ever.

In addition to the high cost of building a nuclear power plant, which would likely be passed on to utility rate payers, nuclear power would be competing with one of Oklahoma’s home-grown energy sources — natural gas — said Bud Scott, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club.

“I don’t think Oklahomans have the kind of stomach for that kind of price tag — $15 billion — when we’re looking at (the Oklahoma) Corporation Commission being challenged on approving rate increases of $60 million,” Scott said. “We’re barking up the wrong tree. We have a sea of natural gas underneath us, a sea of wind all around us.”

However, Scott said he does expect to see some legislation dealing with nuclear energy in the upcoming legislative session, such as repealing the law that prohibits municipal authorities from partnering with utility companies to build nuclear facilities, which was enacted at the time of the Black Fox battle.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that come back,” Scott said.

Keeley said construction and operating licenses are expected to be issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission near the end of 2011 for the construction of the new nuclear reactors at the plant in Georgia.

While there are likely to be a handful of new reactors online by 2018, the NEI is expecting a bigger construction boom later.

“Oklahoma will not be part of a first wave of new builds; we know that,” Keeley said. “We believe it’s very important to build on time and on budget and do that first wave of construction right. Given the first wave, we will see a larger wave in the next decade.”

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