Don Gillispie is confident he can do what Warren Buffett couldn’t: Build a nuclear power plant in Idaho.
The retired nuclear industry executive came to Idaho in 2006 to build a new generation reactor to help jump start the industry where he spent his career. But his dream has hit several snags along the way.
This year, he moved the proposed plant across the Snake River to Elmore County from Owyhee County. He angered local residents in a fiery June 16 public meeting in Glenns Ferry where one anti-nuclear activist was arrested for trespassing and some longtime residents felt insulted. He also has attracted the opposition of the Snake River Alliance, one of Idaho’s most vocal environmental groups.
As part of his company’s annual report recently, independent auditors expressed concerns on whether he even has enough money to continue.
But Gillispie remains undaunted. He has applied to rezone the land for his proposed plant in rural Hammett and hearings are scheduled in October and November before the Elmore County Planning and Zoning Committee. He’s still confident he can secure loans for billions of dollars, run the regulatory gantlet and build a nuclear plant in Idaho.
“I’m a very persistent person,” Gillispie said. Anti-nuclear activists are “not going to run me off.”
Buffett’s subsidiary, MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company, pulled the plug on its proposed nuclear plant near Payette after deciding it would cost too much to be economically feasible. Gillispie faces the same realities, along with questions about his personality and credibility.
To his supporters, Gillispie is a visionary crusader for nuclear power with integrity. To his opponents, he is an arrogant promoter who is spreading false information about his proposed plant and nuclear power.
To succeed, he may have to convince Idahoans not only that nuclear power is safe but that he’s the man to build here. Idaho Republican Sen. Curt McKenzie of Nampa, co-chairman of the Legislature’s interim committee on energy, said he wants to hear more about the project but that lawmakers are supportive of nuclear power.
“People want to be reassured,” McKenzie said. “They want to understand how the process works and how it’s going to affect the community.”
INVESTORS ON HIS SIDE, NEIGHBORS NOT SO SURE
So far, Gillispie has had mixed results. He has held dozens of meetings that attracted more than $10 million in investments. Some have been small investors like Boise doctor William Loveland, who invested in Gillispie’s company after several presentations.
“He does his homework,” Loveland said. “I support the project 100 percent.”
But Hammett farmer Nancy Blanksma has a completely different impression. She went to the June 16 meeting to learn more about the nuclear plant Gillispie was planning to build only 200 yards from the 960-acre farm her husband, Jeff, and his father transformed from desert in the early 1970s.
Today, with water pumped out of the Snake River, they grow wheat, potatoes, alfalfa and beans and plan to turn the farm over to their children. When she raised questions about the plant, Gillispie told her if she didn’t like it, maybe he’d buy them out.
“His remarks were extremely flippant,” Blanksma said. “He didn’t give people answers to the questions we deserved. He didn’t even try. He came across arrogantly, as if he didn’t care if he had our opinions or not.”
Gillispie acknowledged his reaction to Blanksma and other Elmore County residents was poor and he vowed to apologize personally. But he blamed his reaction on the hostile atmosphere created, he said, by the arrest of Twin Falls anti-nuclear activist Peter Rickards and the large number of outsiders at the meeting.
“The Glenns Ferry mayor told me these people weren’t from there,” Gillispie said. “Everything was an attack, instead of legitimate questions.”
DECADES OF NUCLEAR EXPERIENCE
Gillispie has faced tough questions before. As he was preparing to enter the nuclear Navy in 1965, he had to endure an interview with the acerbic Admiral Hyman Rickover, who headed the program.
Gillispie had already completed all the stressful series of technical and written tests. But Rickover’s interview was the final obstacle. Afterward, Rickover told Gillispie he had failed.
“He just wanted to get your reaction,” Gillispie said. “He wanted to see if you’d punch him in the mouth.”
Gillispie passed and began a career that took him across the world and throughout the nuclear industry. He ran nuclear plants in Wisconsin, worked in utilities in New England and in the South, and finished his career working for a nuclear safety contractor. He retired in 2001, and with a team of former industry colleagues began looking for an existing nuclear power plant to buy.
His idea was that the next generation of nuclear plants would be built on the site of the current generation of plants because roads, rails, electric transmission and other basic needs would already be there.
“This guy’s a unique individual, an innovator and entrepreneur,” said John Franz, retired vice president for nuclear operations for IES Utilities Inc. and a board member of Gillispie’s company, Alternative Energy Holdings, Inc. “He’s a guy who wants to make something he believes in happen.
“This is not a money thing with him. This is a dream.”
Most of all, Franz emphasized that Gillispie is a man people trust.
“One thing you learn about this industry is if you have integrity, you survive. If you don’t have it, you don’t survive,” Franz said.
Gillispie’s group tried to buy a plant in Missouri, but the utility decided to keep it. That’s when he looked at Idaho after bumping into an Owyhee County farmer on the plane. His first proposal was to build a 1,600-megawatt plant near Bruneau in 2006.
It would be harder to build a plant without the infrastructure, he acknowledged, but the strong support for nuclear power in Idaho would make up for some of the issues. Buffett was looking at some of the same issues when he spent $3 million to study a nuclear plant in the state and his staff said Idaho and the siting were not the reasons for quitting, giving Gillispie’s concept some credibility.
But Gillispie had his own credibility questioned after a testy exchange with another woman at the Glenns Ferry meeting. She asked if he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He replied, “graduate school.”
He was referring to his 1991 graduation from the MIT Sloan School of Management for Senior Executives, a six-week program that earned him a certificate, not a degree. Opponents jumped on the discrepancy as evidence he exaggerated facts.
“I think some of our opponents have tried to blow this out of proportion,” said Martin Johncox, Gillispie’s spokesman.
OWYHEE COUNTY WAS SUPPORTIVE
Gillispie did have credibility with the Owyhee County Board, said its chairman, Jerry Hoagland.
“He’s had some good intentions,” Hoagland said. “I think he thoroughly believed in his project. That was the convincing part.”
But in February, Owyhee commissioners sent him a final letter, saying if Gillispie didn’t pay $50,000 to cover planning costs, his application for a conditional-use permit would be suspended. Gillispie said the issue was based on a misunderstanding, but he paid the $50,000 anyway and let the county keep it – even after he decided in April that Elmore County had a more positive business atmosphere.
Hoagland said commissioners were disappointed Gillispie left.
“I think he believed in his project so much he didn’t realize how the county process worked,” Hoagland said.
ACTIVISTS TAKE AIM AND USE GILLISPIE’S MISSTEPS
The Snake River Alliance, an energy group that is opposed to nuclear power, has become the most prominent opponent of Gillispie’s project. The group publicized a list of inconsistencies in his statements about the project, including the costs, the kind of reactor he would build, how much water would be needed, when he would be able to open and who was backing him financially.
“He’s doing a disservice to Idaho by putting out faulty information on his project and the nuclear industry,” said Andrea Shipley, executive director of the alliance.
She contrasted his approach and attitude with Buffett’s MidAmerican Idaho effort. His company shared all of its plans with the public early and held public meetings in which everyone was welcome, no matter where they were from.
Gillispie’s Glenns Ferry meeting allowed only Elmore County residents to speak, which Shipley said triggered the hostile atmosphere Gillispie decried. Most of all, she said, MidAmerican treated her group professionally, offering the same kind of relationship it has with the Idaho National Laboratory, despite strong differences on policies.
“Mr Gillispie’s approach so far has been attacking the messenger,” Shipley said.
Now the two sides are in court. After AEHI’s annual report included a note from New York-based auditors Rotenberg & Co. saying the company had lost so much money that it raised “significant” doubt about its ability to continue, Shipley called AEHI a “scam.”
Gillispie sued, saying her statement wasn’t true and was hurting his business.
Nuclear industry observer and writer Dan Yurman from Idaho Falls said Gillispie’s jousting with the Snake River Alliance and other opponents is hurting his cause.
“Most nuclear plant developers simply ignore over-the-top rhetoric from anti-nuclear groups and appeal to the public based on reason,” said Yurman, a retired INL employee. “The lawsuit could backfire because it may give the Snake River Alliance the opportunity to raise funds, build support for its cause and further fuel its self-appointed ‘watchdog’ role.”
A ‘LONG PLAY’
Gillispie’s hopes lie in securing local approval and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. He filed a notice of application in 2006 but has not yet updated it. The federal oversight agency’s Web site still lists the location as Bruneau. Gillispie has announced several partnerships with other companies for funding the plant. The latest: Powered Corp., a Houston, Texas-based company that has ties to investors in the Middle East.
Gillispie acknowledges raising the money will be hard but he doesn’t think the Snake River Alliance or Idaho electricity users should care because it won’t affect their pocketbooks. The only people it ought to matter to are his investors, he said.
His company’s stock has dropped from more than $120 a share to 22 cents. But every investor contacted said Gillispie has been clear about the risks.
Richard Rant, a Boise health care administrator, was Gillispie’s pastor at a church in Atlanta. They stayed in touch after Rant moved to Boise in 2001.
Rant made a small investment when Gillispie started in Idaho, and he doesn’t regret it. “He was very clear that this is a great idea but that it was a long play,” Rant said.
Woody Richards, a Boise lawyer who used to represent AEHI, said the long shot needs to be put into perspective. He used the example of Micron, which also looked like a longshot in the early 1980s.
“Joe Parkinson, he and his twin brother, put together something in a garage. If you asked me at the time if they were going to have a multi-billion dollar corporation I wouldn’t have believed you. They had vision, and a lot of times people with vision can carry something a long way,” Richards said.
Gillispie dismisses any suggestion that Idaho won’t support a nuclear power plant, despite a Boise State University poll that showed a majority of Idahoans would not support a nuclear plant that sold its power outside of Idaho, as Gillispie proposes. But he believes the only people who should have concerns are those in Elmore County.
Energy co-chairman McKenzie said lawmakers are supportive of nuclear energy, but he cautioned that Gillispie is going to have to convince Idahoans, not just Elmore County residents, to support him if he hopes to succeed.
“Nuclear is a highly politicized energy source,” McKenzie said. “For Mr. Gillispie to suggest that’s not going to be a factor in this, he’s nuts.”
Rocky Barker: 377-6484