More outstanding reporting by Tracy Idell Hamilton and Anton Caputo, who have been writing story after story about the secrecy at CPS Energy. The city-owned utility spent the summer touting a proposed $13 billion expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear plant. Problem is, the actual price could be as much as $4 billion higher for Toshiba’s share of the deal.
CPS Energy interim General Manager Steve Bartley resigned Wednesday in the wake of revelations that high cost estimates for two nuclear reactors were kept from the utility’s trustees and the City Council.
Nice scoop by Anton Caputo and Tracy Idell Hamilton:
CPS Energy knew a year ago that contractor Toshiba Inc. wanted at least $4 billion more than San Antonio was willing to pay for the nuclear expansion, according to several sources close to the deal.
Despite this, utility officials used a much lower figure as they pitched the project at public meetings during the summer, arguing that nuclear was the most cost-effective way for San Antonio to meet its future energy needs.
The San Antonio Express-News has been delving into many story angles about the proposed expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City. CPS Energy wants to invest more than $5 billion for two new reactors, which has touched off a heated debate in San Antonio.
For today’s story about nuclear safety, I mostly relied on government reports to learn about the industry’s safety record. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission offers vast archives of official material online. And the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has published several reports about problems at some plants, such as guards sleeping while on duty. The GAO’s search page is a great resource for just about any topic.
But government records aren’t the only resources out there. One incident I came across was documented by the local newspaper, the Bay City Tribune, which had learned through word-of-mouth about a bizarre day at the plant. The incident became the lede of my story:
BAY CITY — On a gusty October day last year, two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled at Ellington Airport in Houston and raced toward rural Matagorda County — home of the South Texas Project nuclear plant.
A small civilian plane was flying near the plant without broadcasting a proper transponder code, raising the specter of a 9-11-style terrorist attack. STP employees saw one of the F-16s roar past the nuclear reactors near Bay City on Oct. 23 at 1:30 p.m., company spokesman Buddy Eller said.
Minutes later, plant personnel dealt with a potential danger on the ground. At 1:40 p.m., a man was spotted in the parking lot carrying a rifle case. Security officers detained him.
Both incidents — first disclosed by the Bay City Tribune, a local newspaper — turned out to be unrelated false alarms. The civilian plane landed, and authorities determined that the pilot had made an innocent mistake. And the man detained at the plant was an STP employee who had bought an empty gun case at the facility’s company store, which catered to hunters.
“They’re not selling rifle cases at the company store anymore,” said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Since the NRC does not release details about many security-related events at nuclear plants, the initial news story in the Bay City Tribune was the only way the public learned what happened that day. So the local journalists deserve a pat on the back for chasing down the story, and kudos to STP for answering their questions.
The friendly staff at the South Texas Project nuclear plant gave me a tour for my story about nuclear safety, which is running tomorrow. This video just went live on mySA.com and it gives you a sense of how the plant looks and sounds.
I toured the South Texas Project nuclear plant today in Matagorda County for a story about its safety record. Here’s a snapshot of the plant and the thick concrete dome that houses one of the nuclear reactors.
The utility companies of both cities own a stake in STP, which creates a situation where both newspapers are examining a proposed expansion of the nuclear facility. Instead of competing like newspapers in a bygone golden era, both papers are collaborating in an era of shrinking newsrooms and budget cuts.
In this case, the final product was interesting. Sunday’s story by Anton and Asher was a good read. The reporters pulled together some useful information about how much crucial coolant the plant needs and whether the Colorado River can provide it. There’s an interesting map produced by the Statesman that shows the top water users along the Colorado River, giving readers a sense of the demand for water. And Express-News graphic artist Mike Fisher created this cool animation explaining why water is important for a nuclear plant.
We seldom, if ever, wrote stories or shared bylines with the folks in Sarasota. We mostly shared information and court documents, which made sense for a story that was playing out in two cities a thousand miles apart.
Maybe this will be a rising trend among Texas newspapers as newsrooms shrink, but hopefully they collaborate for valid reasons, not because it sounds good in an editorial meeting. The journalists need to be crystal clear about what, exactly, the collaborators bring to the table.
Have you heard of the nuclear accident at the SL-1 military facility that killed three men in 1961?
Some readers of the San Antonio Express-News know about it. And today they questioned claims by nuclear plant owner CPS Energy that no one has ever been harmed by operations at a nuclear plant in the United States.
Check out the sweeping claims by CPS Energy in the story here, and look at the response by two readers who offered links to articles and reports about the deadly, Jan. 3, 1961 steam explosion at an experimental nuclear facility in Idaho.
Today I asked a CPS Energy official about the accident. While noting the military facility was a prototype that pales in comparison to today’s commercial nuclear plans, he acknowledged that CPS’ sweeping claims need to be scaled back.
I wrote a story about the issue that’s running tomorrow — kudos to our readers for the great tip.
A report alleging there were holes in plant security;
Reports about tiny cracks found in nozzles at the bottom of a reactor;
And in an unusual incident last year, there’s a news story about a jet fighter that was scrambled to intercept a private plane flying near the plant. Within minutes of that emergency, a man was spotted with a rifle case at the plant and was detained. It turned out he was an employee who bought the rifle case at the plant’s company store.
I did most of the research and mySA’s Mike Howell plugged the information into the online database. Feel free to contact us if you have any suggestions.