Path to new nuclear plant in Iowa is long, expensive

Steam rises from cooling towers at the FPL Duane Arnold Energy Center beside the Cedar River in this aerial image taken
Steam rises from cooling towers at the FPL Duane Arnold Energy Center beside the Cedar River in this aerial image taken over Palo on Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. In its first 33 and a half years of operation, Iowa's only nuclear power plant has generated more electricity than excitement. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jonathan D. Woods) ** MAGS OUT, INTERNET OUT, TV OUT **

WASHINGTON – Iowa has taken a decisive step toward increasing its nuclear power generation, but the road to the startup of a new plant is long, and may get longer.

The Iowa House voted this week on a bill aimed at helping MidAmerican Energy plan for a new plant in Iowa.

That’s just the beginning of a long – and increasingly expensive – process.

MidAmerican’s next step is to win Senate approval of the nuclear power bill, which isn’t certain.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, plans to vote against the bill because it would open the way to shift the billions of dollars of the cost of licensing, permitting and construction to Iowa’s electric utility customers.

He also objects to the fact the generators would be built out of state, denying Iowa those manufacturing jobs, and is concerned about impact on Iowa agriculture should something go wrong.

“I personally believe that Iowa is not a good place for a nuclear power plant because an accident would devastate the global food supply,” Hogg said.

Even if the nuclear bill is approved by the Senate, and signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad, its proposed rate increases would have to be approved by the Iowa Utilities Board, said agency spokesman Rob Hillesland.

MidAmerican Energy is also looking for partners to help them finance their new plant, said company spokeswoman Ann Thalen.

But after the partial meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant, investment capital is drying up. For instance, citing the Japanese tragedy, NRG Energy announced this month it would not invest more in a Texas nuclear power project.

In addition to finding partners – and deciding on a site in Iowa – MidAmerican would also be required to apply for federal and state permits for its new plant.

Getting a federal license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would cost millions of dollars and take at least four years -- and maybe longer in the near future.

NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said the Japanese crisis has put pressure on her agency to toughen up the licensing and permitting process, which could slow things down for MidAmerican and others hoping to build new reactors.

And MidAmerican is considering new technology that’s not up and running yet. Thalen said the company hopes to use small modular units, which are cheaper than larger reactors but produce less energy. A company could start with one or two reactors and build more as revenues from initial electricity production come in and demand grows.

Thalen said another advantage of the new technology is that natural gravity cools the reactors instead of electricity or backup generation which was one of the problems in Japan.

“What the modular design will do is allow companies to spread construction – and the cost of that construction – over years,” said Mitch Singer, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock & Wilcox is one of the leading designers of modular systems and could be the manufacturer of MidAmerican’s new reactors.

Before the problems in Japan, nuclear energy was enjoying a revival of sorts.

No new licenses had been issued by the NRC since 1979, since the meltdown of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant , whose reactor was built by Babcock & Wilcox.

That left the nation with 104 aging nuclear plants including one in Palo run by Duane Arnold.

But since 2007, the NRC has given the green light to 20 new reactors. The most advanced are in Georgia and South Carolina, where preliminary site work is under way.

Concerns about the environmental impact of greenhouse gases, a product of coal-burning power plants, and the ever-growing need for more electric energy helped fuel the new interest in nuclear energy.

About 73 percent of the electricity Iowa uses now is created by burning coal. Another 14 percent comes from renewable sources, mainly wind energy. The third largest source of electrical power is the Duane Arnold facility in Palo which produces about 9 percent of the state’s electric energy needs. That plant has been operating since 1975.

The NRC renewed the Palo’s facility license in December so it can operate for another 20 years.

The disaster in Japan prompted the NRC to conduct a top-to-bottom inspection of all of the nation’s nuclear plants. Results of the inspection of the Palo facility are expected in the next month or two.

But Mitlyng said the plan “performed real well in 2010.”

“There aren’t any issues,” she said.The fate of MidAmerican’s nuclear plans, and of the entire nuclear industry, will be better known when the White House Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future releases its report, due out in June.

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