Entergy seeks bill increase to pay for nuclear plant repairs

About 700,000 Entergy customers from the New Orleans suburbs to the Arkansas line already are paying to repair the Waterford 3 nuclear plant that has only 11 years left on its license.

Since January, Entergy Louisiana’s typical residential customers — who buy about 1,400 kilowatt hours of electricity monthly — have been paying $5.81 more each month for the nuclear plant repairs, according to the company’s calculations.

The repair is roughly the cost of building a brand-new generating plant that uses natural gas as fuel and would last another half century, said Casey DeMoss Roberts, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy. The Alliance is a New Orleans-based group that advocates on behalf of residential and small-business customers of big utility companies.

“Do we want to invest that much money into about a 30-year-old nuclear power plant, or should we retire the plant and invest that into a new natural gas or some other new generation source?” Roberts asked.

It’s like replacing the engine in an old car. The engine works well, but the electrical system and the other mechanicals are antiquated. “What else has rusted? What else needs to be updated? We’re locking into increased spending on this plant for decades,” Roberts said.

Waterford 3 is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate until Dec. 18, 2024.

“Replacing the steam generator was necessary to stay online for lowest-cost energy for the next decade, or two or three decades depending on how long NRC extends the license,” said Jill Elizabeth Smith, an Entergy spokeswoman.

Electricity is more cheaply made at Waterford 3, even with the cost of repairs added in, than any natural gas generating facility, Smith said.

In May, natural gas cost 4.8 cents per kilowatt hour, as opposed to slightly less than a penny per kilowatt hour for nuclear, according to Entergy filings with the Louisiana Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulators. For the entire year, Waterford 3 accounts for about 27 percent of all the electricity used by Entergy Louisiana LLC customers.

At $651.7 million, the repair costs at the Taft nuclear plant are so high that the impact on customers would have been abruptly noticeable — and unaffordable for some — if added to monthly bills in the usual way. To soften the impact, the five elected PSC members allowed Entergy to start collecting modest amounts in January, before the final figures are tallied and approved. The PSC held its first hearings Thursday to determine just how much of the costs Entergy Louisiana LLC customers ultimately have to pay.

Because of the high expense and need for a unified infrastructure, utility companies traditionally have been allowed to operate as monopolies within their service territories. The PSC has constitutional authority to oversee the private company’s decisions that could affect what customers are charged monthly.

The PSC in 2010 gave Entergy permission to make the repairs.

Entergy subsidiaries service about 1.1 million customers in Louisiana. Entergy ratepayers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans belong to different subsidiaries and are not being charged for this expense, according to PSC filings.

But most of Entergy’s largest customers — the manufacturers and refiners in plants on the Mississippi River — are included. Their trade association, the Louisiana Energy Users Group, LEUG, is analyzing Entergy’s request and will announce its position soon, said Randy Young, the organization’s Baton Rouge lawyer.

Electricity is made in a nuclear power plant, generally, when the uranium rods heat radioactive water that is forced through piping under high pressure to heat nonradioactive water into steam that turns the blades of turbines that make electricity. The tubes are designed to prevent radioactive and nonradioactive elements from mixing.

The devices, which are sometimes 70 feet high, were made with nickel-based Alloy 600, which back in the 1970s was cutting-edge technology.

The alloy was degrading at such a rate that federal authorities feared the radioactive and nonradioactive elements would end up mixing, thereby requiring massive and lifelong evacuations of nearby communities.

Two of Entergy’s nuclear power plants — Waterford 3 and Arkansas Nuclear One — are among the 69 facilities nationwide that used Alloy 600 in their pressurized water reactors.