The repeal of a nearly 50-year-old voter-approved ban on utilities billing customers for the upfront costs of building nuclear power facilities won initial approval from the Missouri House on Monday.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Rep. John Black of Marshfield, would allow Missouri utilities to add the cost of a new nuclear plant or renewable energy generator to customers’ rates while they’re under construction.

Missouri’s largest utility company, Ameren, has been attempting to get the ban repealed for more than a decade. Critics of the proposal say the ban was approved by Missouri voters in the 1970s to ensure investor-owned utilities put money into energy supply before charging customers.

Supporter argue that only two states have a complete ban on charging rate payers for “construction work in progress.” Without a change to Missouri law, building clean energy facilities would be cost prohibitive, they contend.

“This bill would allow for the construction of nuclear plants in the state of Missouri,” Black said. “As coal plants are retired, we’ll need base load power 24/7. Nuclear plants can do that… We shut down coal, all we have when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, all we have is nuclear.”

Small module nuclear reactors are most likely the future of nuclear power generation, Black said, but few utilities are building them currently. If the small reactors prove feasible, the market for them will increase.

But critics of the proposal say the legislation amounts to a blank check for monopoly utilities. It’s important that utilities invest in the product they supply before charging ratepayers. In recent years, critics note, many new nuclear facility projects have been abandoned prior to completion.

“Historically speaking, what we’ve seen time and time again… is cost overruns, cost overruns, cost overruns that fall on the ratepayer, often without a completed project,” said Doug Clemens, D-St. Ann.

The debate had raged in Missouri for more than a decade, with Ameren arguing that doing away with the ban is the only way to ensure it can build a new nuclear power plant in Callaway County, home of the state’s only nuclear reactor.

Ameren, which now relies on coal power, has a goal of carbon emissions reaching “net zero” by 2050.

The proposal needs a final vote in the House before moving to the Senate for further deliberations. The Senate is scheduled to hold a committee hearing on it’d version of the legislation on Tuesday.

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