“Anytime you have nine power plants fail in whole or in part in a 24-hour period,” says Gary Groesch, “that’s not bad luck. That’s not even bad maintenance. That’s a maintenance meltdown.”

A veteran New Orleans-based consumer activist, Groesch is talking about Entergy, the huge regional utility based there and in Mississippi. The July 23, 1999 multiple fossil burner failure Groesch describes left half a million people without power, and was sandwiched between unexpected shutdowns at two Entergy-owned commercial reactors, River Bend and Waterford 3. Grand Gulf, another radioactive Entergy property, earned the nickname “Grand Goof” from its massive cost overruns.

Nonetheless, Entergy and AmerGen, a Philadelphia-based multi-national partnership, want to buy as many as they can of the 103 U.S. reactors currently to licensed to operate. They want to string them together in “McNuke” reactor chains and operate them in cut-rate style, with national pools of technical trouble-shooters.

In a deregulated electric market, the buyout strategies they’ve put in motion amount to a massive transformation of the way nuclear reactors are owned and operated in this country. This shift in reactor ownership from local-based utilities to national and multi-national chains has enormous health, safety and economic implications for all of us. And based not least on AmerGen and Entergy’s demonstrated incompetence, the overall prospects, says one critic, “border on the terrifying.”

Entergy’s guiding star in the reactor business is lead attorney J. Bennett Johnston. Long known as “the Senator from oil, gas and nukes,” Johnston reigned supreme on Congressional energy issues from his throne atop the Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment. In 1996 he came home to cash out at Entergy, guiding it deep into the turbulent waters of electric deregulation, just then hitting its stride in California.

Entergy itself arose in 1992 from the muck of Middle South Utilities, which Groesch says “had a name and reputation damaged beyond repair due to the massive economic failure” of its nuclear power program, especially at Grand Gulf. But the name change didn’t prevent Entergy from slashing its legally mandated energy efficient programs. Or from being cited for bad work practices by the Department of Public Utilities in Texas, where it has a substantial customer base. Nor has it stopped Entergy from negotiating a purchase deal with the owners of the Pilgrim reactor, south of Boston, that will allow it to fire half the workforce there, regardless of the safety implications. “The idea of Entergy owning a fleet of reactors does not contribute to a good night’s sleep,” warns Groesch. “This is a development that needs to be watched very closely.”

Entergy is currently negotiating to buy a handful of reactors around the US. But its rival AmerGen is much farther along.

AmerGen is a 50/50 partnership between British Energy and Philadelphia Electric, which hosts its headquarters. British Energy is described by Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service as “Margaret Thatcher’s revenge on the world.” When Thatcher privatized England’s utility system, she could find no one willing to buy its fifteen reactors. So British Energy was established, and immediately began slashing away reactor safety standards and the workforce meant to implement them.

Similar bad things could soon happen here in Ohio. FirstEnergy of Akron is about to get a gigantic $9 billion from the ratepayers, courtesy of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission and the Ohio Consumer Counsel. Northern Ohio’s leading electric buccaneers, FirstEnergy demands the ransom in the name of “competition,” saying it can’t compete in a deregulated environment unless it’s first compensated for its bad investments at the Perry and Davis-Besse nukes.

Of course, the fact that the public wasn’t allowed to vote on either project doesn’t seem to phase FirstEnergy or its minions at the PUCO or OCC. Nor does the fact that gigantic cost overruns are built into the price they’re demanding. Or the idea there will be no real competition in electricity if these surcharges are forced onto the ratepayers.

Indeed, the experience in California, where similar bailouts were granted to nuke-laden utilities, solar energy had just about been killed dead. “With these huge stranded cost surcharges,” says one energy expert, “there’s simply no margin for renewables to compete, even though they are much cheaper in the long run.”

Technically these stranded cost surcharges are the decision of the PUCO. But they can basically pass of the responsibility on the Ohio Consumer Counsel, which is allegedly mandated to stand up for the ratepayers.

In this case, the OCC has totally caved to FirstEnergy, and says the $9 billion rip-off is just fine with them. By doing so, the OCC has also deprived the public of access to taxpayer-funded studies showing how bad this theft really is.

If the PUCO does grant this huge bailout — a formal decision is expected this fall, though it’s all but a give thanks to the OCC’s collapse — we can expect First Energy’s nuke to be bought out. AmerGen or Entergy or another McNuke player will almost certainly roll in to pick up these Chernobyls-waiting-to-happen and run them into the ground — or lake —then walk away when they melt, or leave us all with yet another massive pile of radioactive poisons, killing into the millennia.

Harvey Wasserman’s THE LAST ENERGY WAR: THE BATTLE OVER UTILITY DEREGULATION has been recently published by Seven Stories Press.

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