The meeting of the Payette County Planning and Zoning commission began promptly at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2. And for the next five and a half hours, a long night's journey into day was filled with overwhelming testimony in favor of a nuclear reactor for Payette. The evening also included an ex-reporter sharing a the story of why he turned away from journalism, and a P & Z commissioner telling a group of environmental activists that they had worn out their welcome.
The commission traditionally meets to consider items such as dog kennel expansions or building new beauty salons. But through much of 2010, the dozen commissioners have been faced with the history-making task of deciding whether to launch a new commercial nuclear age for Idaho.
Don Gillispie, CEO of Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., has so far gotten nothing but green lights from officials in each corner of Payette County in his attempt to build a $10 billion nuclear reactor on a parcel of rural land not far from New Plymouth. Gillispie has been all-smiles at each of the Payette meetings, formal and informal. After several years of hearing "no" or "a conditional maybe" from officials in Elmore and Owyhee counties, Gillispie brought the concept to Payette where--one by one--mayors of Fruitland, New Plymouth and Payette echoed their unconditional support.
Gillispie wants to build the reactor on 5,000 acres near Big Willow and Stone Quarry roads. Good luck, if you're trying to find it. The location is the very definition of remote--a series of rolling foothills off a rugged gravel road. The land is about 20 miles, as the crow flies, from the Snake River. So it came as no surprise that Snake River Alliance, Idaho's oldest and most visible anti-nuke activists, would lead a charge against AEHI's proposal.
As the evening of Dec. 2 wore on at the public hearing and a half-dozen SRA representatives took to the microphone, P & Z commissioner Farrell Rawlings ripped into the group.
"Look here," Rawlings lectured. "Our governor is in favor of this. Every mayor in our county is in favor of this. Our chamber of commerce is in favor of this. I'm offended that there's not one positive thing that you and your group has contributed to this discussion."
Rawlings and his 11 colleagues on the commission sat in the jury box at the courthouse for their final deliberation on swinging the doors open to Gillispie and his plans. P & Z is considering a rezone of the parcel of the land from agricultural to industrial. If approved, county commissioners will get a chance to sign off on the deal sometime in January.
Gillispie's next step would be the onerous task of developing a license application. He said he expected more than 120 scientists, engineers and nuclear experts to craft the request, which would be subject to review from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The entire licensing process could take five to seven years. Tack on another three to four years for construction, and Payette could see a reactor as soon as 2020.
Gillispie's official spokesman is Dan Hamilton, a familiar face to television viewers in the Treasure Valley. He's a former anchor for KTRV Fox 12. It's one thing for a spokesman to pump out press releases and manage the media, but it's something else for a spokesman to offer testimony at a public hearing. The hearing on Dec. 2 was anything but ordinary.
"When I was with Fox 12, I reported on AEHI," Hamilton testified. He told commissioners how he initially agreed with opponents.
"But it wasn't long before I asked [AEHI] for a job," said Hamilton.
When BW asked Hamilton about the unusual move to testify, he remained on-message.
"I testified from my own personal perspective. As I was reporting, it got to the point where I thought something was weird," said Hamilton. He said he felt duped by opponents of the planned reactor.
"Pretty soon, a completely different story was coming out. That's why I support AEHI, and that's why I work for them."
Public testimony ran 2-1 in favor of the nuclear proposal. By the time a Thursday evening spilled into a Friday morning, the commission closed all testimony. On Thursday, Dec. 9, P & Z commissioners will give AEHI more time to rebut opponents' testimony. But they may not need it.
When Gillispie told commissioners, "This county will have more money than you'll know what to do with," many of the commissioners beamed.
Practically everyone who survived the marathon predicted that commissioners won't take much more time to give Gillispie another green light.