More nuclear power in Iowa?

Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo, Iowa. (The Gazette)
Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo, Iowa. (The Gazette)

Even critics acknowledge it: A bill that would position Iowa to attract investment in nuclear power plants appears to have strong chances in the Iowa Legislature this session.

Bills introduced for study in the commerce subcommittees of the Iowa House and Senate provide broad support for nuclear power. They also set up a regulatory mechanism that would allow regulated utilities in Iowa to begin charging customers for the cost of nuclear power facilities while they are under construction.

Plans from the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions have breathed fresh life into the nation’s nuclear power industry, which saw little new construction for several decades until last year. Iowa’s only nuclear power plant, the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo, is 37 years old.

Nuclear power plants generate none of the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. But the nation still lacks a permanent disposal site for spent nuclear fuel, which now must be stockpiled at nuclear power plants. Critics say mining uranium to produce nuclear fuel consumes lots of energy and degrades the environment.

MidAmerican Energy is conducting a study to determine the best locations for a nuclear power station in Iowa. A law

approved by the Legislature last year allows the utility to pass along up to

$5 million per year in study expenses to customers for three years.

Dean Crist, MidAmerican’s vice president of regulation, said it’s apparent after the first year of study that there are suitable sites for a nuclear power plant in Iowa, and public opinion is generally open to the idea.

New federal regulations, he said, will force MidAmerican and other Iowa utilities to close older coal-burning plants or make major modifications that will reduce their output. Senate Study Bill 1144 and House Study

Bill 124 are needed to “level the playing field” between Iowa and other states that have passed legislation supporting nuclear plant construction, Crist said.

“It basically says Iowa is open for business for nuclear power construction,” he said.

Nuclear plant construction, he said, tends to be more costly and involve longer lead times than building other types of power plants. Recovering some of the construction cost before the plant is operational enables plant owners to obtain financing and reduces the rate increase that customers would otherwise experience later, Crist indicated.

The bill has support from groups representing a broad cross-section of the electric power industry in Iowa, including MidAmerican, Alliant Energy, and groups representing municipal power companies and electric cooperatives.

The Sierra Club of Iowa, Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups that support renewable energy are lining up to oppose the bill.

“It’s kind of being fast-tracked, and it seems to have the votes,” said opponent Mike Carberry of Iowa City, a board member of the Iowa Sierra Club who operates Green State Solutions, a renewable energy firm. He said the bill would have a large impact on electric rates.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, wrote in his newsletter that the bill is being rushed through and it needs work.

“Ratepayers will be asked to pay for all the expenses and construction of a plant even if they decide not to complete it,” Bolkcom wrote. “This could cost billions.”

If conditions are favorable for MidAmerican to proceed with a plant, Crist said it would likely be in operation in 2020. Maureen McCue of

Physicians for Social Responsibility argued that the long lead time could put all kinds of new renewable energy developments in Iowa on hold for years.

Crist disputed contentions that expanding nuclear power will derail wind power in Iowa.

“As we’re looking at nuclear, we’re building 600 megawatts of wind,” he said.

MidAmerican and other supporters are selling the economic benefits of the proposal, which they say would add new tax proceeds and jobs to the state — helping to replace those lost at the coal-burning plants that will close. Crist also suggested the bill could help Iowa garner more manufacturing jobs in the nuclear power industry, duplicating its success in recruiting wind energy companies.He said the bill would not approve or order the construction of a plant, and the Iowa Utilities Board will still have considerable regulatory control to protect consumers.

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