Our Own Private Language
As I watched Tom Farrell, CEO and Chair of Dominion Resources at the May 6th shareholders meeting I had one recurrent thought:
I was supposed to be him.
We have the same class background, the same white privilege, attended similar fancy schools. We are both propagandists, we are both storytellers. I was being groomed to be a captain of industry who would stand in front of a room containing many angry shareholders and I would be cordial and friendly and respectful and ultimately dismissive of any of their substantive concerns. Just as he was with me.
And as I explored this fantasy world in which I was running a nuclear utility, GPaul pointed out in that world I would need to like ties, and have a monogamous wife who also liked ties. And I would have a lot of money and influence. I would give evasive sound bite answers to the media and smile slyly when they tried to nail me down with a follow up, simply pointing to the another reporter and saying, “Next question please.”
And I would not trade places.
I was talking with Emilia and she was laughing at the idea of me being monogamous and wearing ties. She repeated her appreciation that I did not make that choice and ended up “on our side.” I said I got lucky and fell in love with a witch. She is dismissive of my explanation, saying instead that we make our own luck.
Tom Farrell recognized me in the brunch before the shareholders meeting. He asked why I was not at last years shareholders meeting. I did not have the heart to tell him I missed the last three.
Security was tighter than it had ever been. Cell phones were not allowed into the meeting. There were multiple checks before you could get into the meeting space. They made it seem like it was a big deal for them to permit you to come to this meeting which they are legally required to have and the fact that we technically owned the company somehow seemed lost.
Though I did get this convenient cell phone extra battery. Which in a comic irony broke immediately.
I watch Tom Farrell do his thing. He presented a carefully selected subset of the available data, focusing on the areas where his company had done well. I’ve been to enough of these presentations to know that there are always some metrics left out. And it is important to admit that by many classical measures Dominion is a quite well run company. Which means that workers and customers are getting taken advantage of to make sure that shareholders do well.
But then a strange thing happened. As the hour and a half long presentation about how safe and profitable the company continued, i noticed something that very few other people in the room noticed. There was not a single mention of the North Anna 3 reactor project. As part of my complex question to Farrel at the end I inquired about this:
“You just spoke for an hour and a half about Dominion and you did not once mention the North Anna 3 project, which is without doubt the most expensive and likely riskiest project our company might embark on in the next few years. Why is that?”
Farrell of course had his pat answer. “I did not mention North Anna 3 because we have not yet made a decision about this project. We are still awaiting the EPAs carbon ruling before we decide if we are going to go forward with it.”
And for almost everyone in the meeting, this likely seemed a completely reasonable answer. But in our private unspoken conversation, it had a completely different meaning. This is my 7th shareholders meeting. North Anna 3 has been mentioned in every proceeding meeting, not just in passing, but in some depth. This at least $10 billion and more likely $20 billion project is not getting mentioned, because Dominion is walking away from it.
At every previous meeting I had attended, Dominion had also not made a decision about going forward with this project. But this not “making a decision about it” is not free. To not make a decision about this reactor has already cost Dominion over half a billion dollars, which is more than most power generating stations cost in their entirety. And normally investors would like to see some return for that amount of money. Dominion, however, has decided to call these wasted funds “research” and pass them on to the rate payers. Sadly the bought off Virginia legislature quickly agreed to this theft. This research will never have any value to the customers who are paying for it. But it is just too close to the time when they we will be forced to pay for it to announce that they were not planning on building the reactor at all.
Our private conversation has other parts as well. I said, “Four years ago you said Japan would start building reactors again domestically, yet today we see all 50 reactors in the country are either melted down, marked for decommissioning or not in service. Are you still confident Japan will build more reactors?”
Farrell replied, “Japan has paid a high price for these reactors being closed. And yes i am confident in the next year, some of these closed reactors will come back online.”
Again, if you were not paying close attention, you would have just believed the story tellers version of reality. But if you look closer, you will see he is not answering my question at all. I was asking about new construction, which is decades off in Japan, if it ever happens at all. Fukushima was and is a huge crisis. While the US has mostly blissfully moved on, Japan is looking at record numbers of childhood thyroid cancers and 100K people who can’t return home. Farrell was wrong 4 years ago when he promised new domestic construction of reactors, and he knows it. But instead of admitting that, he answers a different question. Just like slick politicians do
Farrell and i have sparred like this for years. This is our own private language. I generally don’t cut in and ask follow up questions. But i am not quite comfortable just letting him get away. I ask the one question there is not a good answer for.
“While there are many uncertainties around building a new reactor, we do know one thing for sure. Credit agencies have promised that if utilities begin new nuclear construction their companies rating will be down graded. And for all the new reactor projects in the US we have seen this happen. How is Dominion going to avoid this fate, if it does decide to build North Anna 3?”
Farre;; talks about all companies being different. About how SCANA which started construction in 2013 and is already behind schedule and over a billion dollars over budget. They got down graded because they are so small and the two reactors are such a large part of the portfolio. Farrell speaks non-specifically of how Southern Company (which also got down graded after they started their reactor construction in 2013 and is the same size as Dominion) got down graded for other reasons.
But Farrell knows, we both know, that nuclear construction companies have an absolutely terrible time controlling costs. He even hints at this when he is complaining about a recent off shore wind project Dominion was considering. “They could not cap the costs,” he said. “We can’t pursue projects which have uncapped costs.”
In our own private language Farrell is finally telling me what i want to hear. North Anna 3 is dead and we just are not talking about it anymore.
About paxusa funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.
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