A controversial nuclear power plant, the only one in Kansas, celebrates its 14th birthday today. Decommissioning is expected to cost nearly $500 million.
Fourteen years ago today, the Wolf Creek Generating Station near Burlington produced its first electricity.
"This is a real milestone for us," said Cathy Autrey, a spokeswoman for Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation, the corporation that oversees the power plant's operation.
"We want everybody to know we're here. We're generating power. We're safe, and we intend to remain that way for a long, long time."
To prove her point, Autrey noted that while the nuclear power plant is generating record amounts of electricity -- 10,782,935 megawatts in 1998 -- it's also winning national recognition for its safety record.
"Two months ago, the National Safety Council presented Wolf Creek with its 'Award of Honor' -- that's its highest award -- for logging more than 4.9 million hours without a lost-time injury or illness," she said.
But the plant's operations are hardly free of controversy. They're at the heart of a long-running and much-publicized dispute between customers of KGE and KGE's parent company, Western Resources, over rate disparities. And the state's environmental community remains, at best, leery.
"It's been 14 years? I guess we can all be glad we haven't had a meltdown," said Bob Eye of Lawrence, an environmental lawyer and one of the plant's harshest critics. "But when I look back on it, I think of all the radiation that's been released in gas form and into the lake, and the premiums that ratepayers have had to pay ... and then I multiply that times 14."
Kansas would be much better off, Eye said, if all the money spent on Wolf Creek had been targeted toward "getting ourselves established in a real-energy economy, one that's based on solar, wind and efficiency."
Eye and others warn that Wolf Creek still lacks a long-range plan for disposing of low- and high-level nuclear waste and for paying for its eventual decommissioning.
Earlier this week, Wolf Creek officials filed an analysis of the plant's decommission costs with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"In terms of 1999 dollars, the current estimate for decommissioning is $467.2 million," said Warren Wood, general counsel for Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation.
The owners of Wolf Creek -- KGE (47 percent), Kansas City Power and Light (47 percent) and Kansas Electric Power Cooperative (6 percent) -- are required to maintain funds, collected from ratepayers as a portion of monthly bills, to cover the plant's decommission costs. The funds are monitored by the Kansas Corporation Commission.
"The funds show a very healthy balance," said Adam Gatewood, a KCC senior financial analyst.
This year's annual contributions are:
- KGE -- $3,785, 080
- KCPL -- $1,000,089
- KEPCo -- $213,456.
Wolf Creek is licensed to remain in operation until March 2025.
"That's not indicative of how long we'll be in operation," Wood said. "If, by that time, the plant is still in good condition and still financially feasible, it's very likely that we'll apply for a 10-year extension.
"But at this point, that's unpredictable."
Wood said Wolf Creek's plans for disposing of its waste are vastly different from those announced 14 years ago.
Originally, the plant's high-level waste was to be stored at a national facility, which never got built; and it's low-level waste was to be shipped to a second site, which never got built, developed by a five-state compact.
The compact's proposed site in Boyd County, Neb., remains mired in lawsuits, and the national site is still on the drawing board.
In the meantime, Wood said, Wolf Creek officials figured out a way to double the plant's capacity for storing high-level waste.
"It used to be 20 years" of on-site storage capacity, he said. "Now it's 40."
Low-level waste is shipped to sites in either Utah or South Carolina, he said.
"We don't have anything (waste) piling up," Wood said.
Responding to Eye's concerns over the plant's radioactive emissions into the air and water, Wood said, "Our cooling lake is a closed body of water; it doesn't release into anything. And our air emissions are -- and always have been -- well within the standards put out by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."
Eye remains skeptical, warning that technological advances -- "You're going to see houses that are self-sustaining when it comes to energy and heating" -- will make Wolf Creek obsolete long before 2025.
"I'm glad there hasn't been a catastrophic accident out there in 14 years, but that's just a small part of this story," Eye said. "The true costs of that plant are going to be enormous."
Wolf Creek spokeswoman Autrey: "We do our best to educate the public, but everyone is entitled to their opinion."
-- Dave Ranney's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.