Treating CPS Energy’s addiction to the seven-percent solution

Sherlock Holmes used a “7-percent solution” of cocaine to get through life when he wasn’t solving mysteries.  When Conan Doyle wrote of his addicted detective in the 1880s cocaine was considered perfectly harmless.  As its deadly properties became known, Doyle tried to wean his hero off the drug.
The Doyle in San Antonio’s own tale of obsession is Doyle Beneby, the newly hired CEO of City-owned CPS Energy.  He has inherited the CPS 7-percent solution; more precisely: a 7.6-percent investment in two reactors planned for the South Texas Project nuclear site. 
As in all mysteries, obfuscation and slights-of-hand figure prominently. Despite endless assurances of forthcoming transparency, Beneby was hired in a process so cloaked in secrecy that no one even knew he was a candidate until he was chosen.  Beneby has strong ties to the nuclear industry through his former employer Exelon, a company which tried a hostile takeover of NRG last year and which produces more nuclear energy than any other utility.  Citizen groups had no chance to meet candidates, review their credentials, or talk with them before CPS announced its decision.
Last year, the CPS board and public were kept in the dark about the true cost of nuclear development when utility executives knowingly concealed the skyrocketing $18.2-billion nuclear price tag.  Costs have already tripled. 
Attempts by citizens to discuss the issue were spurned. Like trying to reason with an addict, what CPS officials didn’t want to hear — no matter how expert the source — they ignored.  Serendipity was all that saved ratepayers from a decision that every city leader, both public and private, was willing to take on our behalf.
Facing fallout, CPS scrambled in court to get out of the deal but ended up with a 7.6-percent share.  In return for releasing CPS from its original 50-percent investment NRG got strong lobbying efforts from the city for federal funding of nuclear projects.  CPS hoped to save its good credit; NRG hoped to save face and its nuclear project.
Unfortunately, 7-percent of this project leaves CPS ratepayers as the last customer standing if NRG, with its disastrous credit rating, should default.  NRG can walk away and take the loss; public utilities can’t. Ratepayers could very well be stuck paying off 100-percent of the project, simply because they can’t go bankrupt as corporations can.
Requests by citizens for line-item budgets from CPS through the Freedom of Information Act have been promised and denied, most recently after a board meeting at which residents were assured their requests would be honored.
Like cocaine, nuclear power was once considered perfectly harmless.  Its drawbacks are now well documented.  Financially risky with a decade-long start up time, it provides no local jobs and requires huge quantities of water.  Energy expert Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology figures we’d have to build more than one nuclear plant a day until 2050 to solve our energy needs. 
CPS hasn’t been willing to wean itself off the powerful drug of playing in the nuclear energy market.  That’s the nature of addiction: the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines it as “impairment in behavioral control, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors.”
An intervention is needed, requiring the involvement of those of us who will be living here long after the current players have moved on.  If you care: speak out, get involved, attend meetings, write letters — be the best of America.  Demand that leaders give up the nuclear addiction, demonstrate transparency and listen to you at CPS and City Hall.  Even Conan Doyle recognized that addiction can’t be truly conquered, only managed by treatment.  Maybe the new Doyle will be as honest.

Cynthia Weehler is a founding member of Energia Mia, an umbrella organization that formed during the heat of San Antonio’s contentious 2009 debate about nuclear power. Saytown Lowdown is a regular San Antonio Current feature that allows thinkers from across the community spectrum to expound upon the vital issues of our day.

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