Charlie Mitchell

Grand Gulf a ‘catastrophe’ that became an asset

Nuclear-powered generators were scarce in the United States when utility powers-that-be in Mississippi decided, “Hey, we need one of those.”

Last week, word came that Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, the first and only plant of its type in the state, has been cleared to keep juicing nearly 20 percent of the state’s demand for another two decades.

Many books could be written about Grand Gulf, nestled by the Mississippi River in Claiborne County. Each could examine the project from a different perspective — technology, finance, sustainability, politics, environment. All would be interesting. At times the plant appeared to be a super-duper boondoggle. At times it appeared to be a wise and prudent approach to energy independence.

How old is it? Well, U.S. Sen. John Stennis stood at the precise point where the reactor base would be seated and made a speech about the grand and glorious future of nuclear power. That was 42 years ago. Reporters, when they weren’t snapping photos with black and white film, were agog at the stat sheets being distributed. Enough specially formulated concrete would be poured for the containment building and nearby cooling tower to pave a highway to Alaska and back … something like that.

From a global need for alternative energy, the timing to build Grand Gulf could not have been better. The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 pushed the nation’s panic button. There had been lines for gasoline and the cost per gallon threatened to go as high as $1.

From a construction finance perspective, the timing could not have been worse.

Under Mississippi law at the time, no utility could frontload expenses. Whether a mom-and-pop sewerage shop serving a small neighborhood or a proposed $1.2 billion nuclear station serving several states, utilities had to build their infrastructure and put it into service before they could start recovering the cost.

That meant every dollar needed for the most costly construction project in state history had to be borrowed. The late 1970s was a terrible time in American history to be a debtor. It was the era of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise.” The average annual home mortgage rate was almost 17 percent compared with under 4 percent today. When Grand Gulf eventually went into commercial service in July 1985, after 15 years of planning, construction and testing, the cost of the nuclear plant was well over $5 billion, with most of that being interest owed to the banks that fronted the construction money.

For many years during the construction phase, Grand Gulf, on 2,100 acres by the Mississippi River in Claiborne County, was uniformly referenced as “Grand Goof.”

There was great apprehension about what would happen when this unprecedented expense went into the rate base for Mississippi Power & Light, now Entergy, customers. And there was shock and awe when bills started arriving, especially given preconstruction comments that power from the nuclear plant would be so cheap that homeowners would pay a flat $10 a month or so.

From an environmental perspective, Grand Gulf has never caused any serious alarm, any “off-site” emergency declarations. There have been some scares. One shutdown, if memory serves, was triggered by a raccoon exploring where it really shouldn’t have explored. Too, there’s still no national solution for spent fuel rods.

From a political and legal perspective, Grand Gulf has caused consternation at times. When it went online, the county could tax it. Based on its valuation, $16 million was due. Claiborne’s entire annual budget was about $800,000 per year at the time. Lots of asphalt was purchased to pave every pig trail. Claiborne schools’ teachers immediately became the state’s highest paid. A couple of people went to prison for graft. Perhaps more should have.

Soon thereafter, the Legislature passed a bill to take about half of Grand Gulf’s property tax payment and apportion it to cities and counties it served with electricity. The split was seen as racist, given that the vast majority of Claiborne residents are black. They sued, but lost.

From the start, it was envisioned that Grand Gulf Nuclear Station would have at least two generating units. In 2007, the owners received an Early Site Permit to expand, but that idea was dropped. Instead, the existing reactor was amped up (sorry) to become the most productive in the nation.

And so it goes. In the 1970s as today, nuclear power had its fans and foes. But Grand Gulf has escaped a lot of headlines, and like the river it borders, keeps rolling along. And now, for the next 20 years, too.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.

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