Business

After 46 years, Duane Arnold Energy Center set to close this year

'The fish bowl era is at an end'

The first fuel bundle at the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo is lowered into its slot in the nuclear reactor Feb. 2
The first fuel bundle at the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo is lowered into its slot in the nuclear reactor Feb. 27, 1974. (The Gazette)
/

After some 46 years, the Duane Arnold Energy Center will end energy production this year. The Palo facility employs nearly 600 workers,

Its owner, Florida-based NextEra Energy, announced in 2019 it would decommission the single-unit, 600-megawatt nuclear plant by the end of this year.

Here is a look back at its long tenure as energy company and Palo business.

450 acres

The facility, which began operation in 1974, was not entirely without controversy. But for a nuclear enterprise in the Midwest, it has had a relatively smooth ride for 46 years.

Iowa Electric Light and Power Co.’s budget for 1968 was announced as being a little more than $16 million. As early as February 1967, though, in the background of normal business, studies were formulating in the third-floor engineering department of the company’s offices in the Security Building at Second Avenue and Second Street SE in Cedar Rapids on the feasibility of building a nuclear power generating plant complex.

Two years later, Iowa Electric was undertaking the largest construction project ever in Iowa on a 450-acre site near Palo.

At the time there were 15 nuclear power plants operating in the country, while 87 more either were under construction or in the planning stages.

In a concerted effort to be transparent with the public about the project from the first shovel of dirt moved, the site was open to visitors.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Construction traffic on the county roads raised so much dust, site workers claimed the routes were unsafe and refused to return to work. County and company officials met to solve the problem, first by oiling the roads, then by paving them.

Environmental experts began monitoring radiation levels at the Duane Arnold site in 1971 — well ahead of its start up to provide comparative measurements for when the plant began operation. One of the tests of local radiation was to take samples of milk, soil, corn, soybeans and even vegetables from area gardens at regular intervals.

The first week in March 1974, reporters dressed in coveralls, rubber footwear, hats and gloves were allowed access into the reactor area as the nuclear fuel was loaded.

“Now, with fuel going into it, the fish bowl era is at an end,” Iowa Electric President and Chairman Duane Arnold told reporters. “Public access to the plant is over.”

The next week, a radioactive device was moved from a 10-ton leaded cask into the reactor’s flooded storage cavity. Control rods were removed to allow the first chain reaction.

The plant’s cost exceeded $200 million. It was 70 percent owned by Iowa Electric, 20 percent owned by Central Power Cooperative of Marion and 10 percent owned by Corn Belt Power Cooperative of Humboldt.

Just after the facility went on line under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, the commission’s functions of development and regulation were spun off, leaving the power plant under the new U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Hurdles

A problem surfaced when vibrations were detected in the reactor core and it was shut down in June 1975. Water circulating around the fuel rods was causing excessive vibration.

After the rods were replaced, the reactor was brought back to 85 percent, but full repairs had to be delayed when the reactor designer, General Electric, had trouble solving the challenges.

The plant then was scheduled to go back on line during an April 1977 shutdown.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The plant faced another hurdle when Iowa Electric sued a uranium supplier for failing to deliver. The original price agreed upon for the uranium was about $8 to $9.25 per pound. The price soared to $41.50 and the supplier decided to offer its product to the highest bidder. Iowa Electric promptly sued.

The first public protest occurred in November 1977 when members of Free Environment of Iowa in Iowa City and some members of the Cedar Rapids National Organization for Women and Citizens United for Responsible Energy staged a release of 1,000 helium balloons. The protesters cited “safety incidents” at the plant, higher utility bills and possible mismanagement of the company.

Another protest rolled around two years later, on March 25, just two days before the partial meltdown of the nuclear generator at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Early on March 24, 13 uniformed Linn County sheriff’s deputies faced off with 13 of 50 demonstrators who hoped to “put nuclear power on trial.” The 13 chose to cross the Energy Center’s property line and sit down. Each was then led away to be charged with criminal trespass.

The protesters were led by Des Moines activist priest Frank Cordaro, leader of Iowa Mobilization for Survival.

None of them was from Palo or Cedar Rapids.

Cordaro was the only one of the 13 who refused to give authorities information on his background. While the rest were released, Cordaro remained in jail and was subsequently charged with two counts of interference with official acts.

After four days, the six jurors acquitted the 12 defendants. The 13th was not tried with the others because of illness.

Seven protesters from Iowa City were arrested in July 1980 when they floated down the Cedar River, climbed a fence at the plant and were immediately caught by security guards, who gave them the option to leave the property. Instead, they chose to wait until deputies came to arrest them for criminal trespass.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

They were acquitted.

Settled qualms

By the plant’s 10th anniversary, in 1984 — five years after a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and two years before an explosion at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, directly killed 31 people and prompted the evacuated 300,000 — qualms about the Duane Arnold plant’s existence seemed to have settled.

Worries about radiation were quelled when statistics were released showing lower radiation levels at Palo than next to Iowa Electric coal plants.

Water from the cooling towers stayed well below the limit of one degree more than river water temperature.

Despite protests by organizations devoted to eliminating nuclear power, the issue didn’t seem to be of critical importance to most people in Cedar Rapids. The public library had shelves of information about the industry that remained untouched.

“Probably the ones who use it the most are the anti-nuclear people,” said Kay Burke, a reference librarian. “Most Cedar Rapids residents don’t seem too interested.”

When the Duane Arnold facility was dealing with a cracked pipe — one of eight that circulated water around the reactor in March 1985 — Burke said use of the material spiked, but, otherwise, only a handful of people ever asked for it.

In 1999, the Iowa Utilities Board said the facility would most likely have to shut down in the face of a lack of capacity for spent fuel storage. Instead, it opted for dry cask fuel rod storage in 2002.

The plant was sold to NextEra Energy in 2005.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.