Hearing today on proposal for another nuclear plant

DES MOINES — Legislation that will enable the production of more nuclear energy — and, according to opponents, raise Iowans’ utility bills by $50 a month — is generating some electricity around the Capitol.

Although nine state senators have called for delaying legislation promoting “next-generation nuclear power,” a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Senate File 390 is planned from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. today in room 116 of the Capitol.

The proposal, as well as House File 561, is drawing added scrutiny because of earthquake damage to Japanese nuclear reactors. House Commerce Committee Chairman Chuck Soderberg, R-Le Mars, says it’s not a fair comparison.

“The name of the technology is the same, but the technology is significantly different,” Soderberg said. The older Japanese plants do not have many of the safety features of future nuclear plants, he said.

“For example,” he said, “if we would get hit by an earthquake and it would take out the backup power, the fuel rods could be lowered into the cooling tank by gravity.”

It’s the difference between a dial-up phone and a smartphone, according to MidAmerican Energy. It’s considering a 540-megawatt nuclear plant, perhaps next to the Duane Arnold Energy Center — Iowa’s only nuclear power plant — near Palo in Linn County.

Nuclear power is the only option for meeting Iowa’s future baseload requirements, or the amount of energy needed to meet normal demand, the bills’ supporters say.

“We want it to be safe, we want it to be secure, we want residents to have their say in what is going on, and that’s the discussion at this point,” said Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton.

Concerns about cost and safety were raised by Sens. Daryll Beall of Fort Dodge, Dennis Black of Grinnell, Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, Dick Dearden of Des Moines, Bob Dvorsky of Coralville, Gene Fraise of Fort Madison, Jack Hatch of Des Moines, Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids and Pam Jochum of Dubuque. The proposed small modular reactors are unproven and not approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, they said in a letter to colleagues.

The legislation “appears to be on a fast track,” they said. However, with MidAmerican in the first year of a three-year feasibility study of a new nuclear plant, the senators proposed a legislative commission thoroughly investigate safety and cost issues, impact on rates, and renewable energy alternatives.

It’s not just about safety, according to Mark Cooper of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. The legislation would shift upfront costs and financial risks of developing nuclear power to ratepayers. They would be investing in plants that aren’t even on the drawing board with no assurance of a return on their involuntary investment.

Cooper’s cost estimate is off the mark, MidAmerican says. A $1 billion investment could cost residential customers about $7.60 a month, not $50, it said.

Passage of the legislation won’t mean nuclear plants will be built immediately, Soderberg said.

“This bill does not give anyone a green light,” he said. “It gives the Iowa Utilities Board and the Office of Consumer Advocate the tools to make their decisions.”

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