Iowa House takes 'huge step' on proposed new Iowa nuclear plant

The Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear power plant near Palo, Iowa, is seen in a photo from April 20, 1999. The site may
The Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear power plant near Palo, Iowa, is seen in a photo from April 20, 1999. The site may be the location of a second nuclear plant being proposed by MidAmerican Energy. (AP Photo/ The Gazette, Mark Tade)

The Iowa House gave the go-ahead Tuesday to legislation that helps pave the way for a new nuclear power plant in Iowa.

Whether MidAmerican Energy will decide to build a plant is not a done deal, but its ratepayers would be on the hook to help cover the cost of nearly all facets of the pre-planning and construction of a new nuclear facility, even if the plant is never built.

The legislation allows MidAmerican Energy to recover “all prudent preconstruction and construction costs incurred,” regardless if it is completed.

Proponents of the legislation said without those assurances, the utility company would be hard-pressed to find investors in the project which would leave the state behind as it moves toward energy independence.

The 68-30 vote came after 5 1/2 hours of debate. If built, the cost of construction is expected to be between $1 billion and $2 billion and create 500 construction jobs. Operation of the plant, if built, is expected to create 300 jobs.

“This is a huge step for Iowa, and it is a huge step if we believe we want to grow the great state of Iowa,” said Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-Le Mars, chairman of the House’s commerce committee and floor manager of the bill. “If Iowans, if businesses are expected to stay here, we need to provide them with power.”

The legislation was controversial at the start, but became more so after the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan which damaged the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

On the heels of that disaster, several lawmakers pushed for at least a year of study before moving forward with a bill that sets the stage for a new nuclear facility in Iowa.

House members tried the same tactic Tuesday, offering several amendments that called for outside studies and independent reviews of the state’s power needs and the potential facility. House members also pointed to legislation passed that year that called for a three-year study of the state’s power needs, which has not been turned in.

“Why are we going forward without the information we need?” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City. “The irony that this is the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy is not lost on me.”

Pocketbook issues also dominated Tuesday’s debate. Soderberg stressed that the bill doesn’t allow the utility to raise rates. Those decisions are still made, he said, by the Iowa Utilities Board.

That assurance wasn’t enough for all House members. Rep. Anesa Kajtazovic, D-Waterloo, moved an amendment that would cap rate increases at 1 percent per year by MidAmerican.

“I know there are people back home that support nuclear energy as part of a comprehensive plan,” Kajtazovic said. “But they don’t support an open checkbook.” The amendment failed on a largely party-line vote.

Ahead of the debate, Friends of the Earth released a SurveyUSA poll showing 75 percent of Iowans oppose the legislation to permit the electricity rates of MidAmerican Energy customers to be increased now to pay for future construction of a nuclear reactor.

“The results are clear, Iowans simply do not want their rates increased by MidAmerican to finance nuclear reactors,” said Damon Moglen, climate and energy director at Friends of the Earth. “Iowans have not been duped — they’re not going to pay for MidAmerican’s boondoggle. On top of being dangerous for the public and for the environment, nuclear reactors are just too costly and risky an investment.”

Soderberg responded saying “I know what the survey said, I would have liked it to continue and have asked ‘How many Iowans would like to spend $800 million on old, outdated (coal) plants?’ ” he said. “Not many, I don’t think.”

AARP also opposed the legislation, citing the potential cost to its members, older Iowans, many who live on fixed incomes.

“AARP is concerned about this legislation, not because of the question of nuclear power, but because we oppose raising rates for consumers already struggling to afford their utility bills for a plant yet to be built, where we don’t know the actual cost to build, and may or may not even be built in Iowa,” the organization said in a statement.

The results of SurveyUSA’s poll of 600 Iowans are available at: legislation now moves on to the Senate.

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