From Opponents of IA nuclear bill get temporary reprieve
1/31/2012By Lynn Campbell  | 

DES MOINES — Members of AARP have flooded the Iowa Senate switchboard with more than 1,500 calls to oppose a bill that would pave the way for MidAmerican Energy Co. to raise consumers’ rates upfront to build a nuclear power plant in Iowa.

Opponents of the bill got a temporary reprieve Tuesday. The anticipated first committee vote of the year on the bill was canceled about two hours before it was scheduled to start.

“We’re encouraged for now,” said Mike Carberry, who’s campaigning against the nuclear bill for Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit composed of environmental activists. “I’m not going to take a victory lap.”

Iowa Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, chairman of the Iowa Senate Commerce Committee and the bill’s floor manager, was not at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon and failed to respond to a request for comment on his cell phone.

“My guess is there’s a question whether he has the support to get it out of committee,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “Why would we want to have rate payers invest in a nuclear power plant when utility owners are unwilling to do it themselves?” 

MidAmerican President William Fehrman said his company wants to make sure customers get the best value and stability in their power supply. He has cited an Illinois study showing nuclear generation is cheaper than other alternatives to provide base load power. He and other advocates say wind energy doesn’t come close to providing Iowa with the necessary increase to base load capacity. 

But 72 percent of 400 likely Iowa voters 50 and older oppose the proposal, according to a May 23-25, 2011, survey by Selzer & Co. for AARP. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote for a state lawmaker who supports such a proposal. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. 

Carberry said nine of the 15 members of the Senate Commerce Committee are up for re-election in November.

AARP, a nonprofit advocacy group for seniors, and environmental groups oppose House File 561 because it would authorize MidAmerican Energy, with permission from the Iowa Utilities Board, to increase customers’ rates upfront to pay for preconstruction and construction of a potential $1-billion to $2-billion nuclear plant, even if that nuclear power plant may never be built, and even if costs increase.

“It’s an unfair deal,” said Anthony Carroll, associate state director for advocacy with AARP Iowa. “If this is the best deal we can do for consumers, then Iowa’s rate payers are in serious trouble.”

The Iowa Utilities Board estimates that under the legislation, rates would increase $7 a month, or 10 percent on an average bill of about $70. MidAmerican hasn’t increased rates since 1995. The nuclear plant wouldn’t come online until 2020.

A recent staff memo from the Iowa Utilities Board said this year’s amended version of House File 561 “would shift nearly all of the construction, licensing and permitting risk associated with one or more nuclear plants from the company to its customers.” It went on to say that “some of these provisions could create incentives for the company to engage in behavior that could be contrary to the public interest in certain situations.”

Businesses and some labor unions last year joined together to back the bill, which supporters view as economic development. 

Iowa businesses are large consumers of energy, and many see nuclear power as a means to provide that energy. Labor unions, meanwhile, see the legislation as a way to create jobs. Supporters say the proposed nuclear power plant would create more than 500 new construction jobs. That would be followed by 300 to 800 jobs at the nuclear power plant, such as engineers, who would be paid an average of $75,000 a year. 

But the bill’s leading advocate, former Iowa Sen. Swati Dandekar, D-Marion, is no longer in the Iowa Senate, after being appointed last year to the Iowa Utilities Board.

Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday he supports the legislation. He said federal incentives are available for nuclear energy, which he said is environmentally safe.

“I believe that we need to look at all ways that we can generate power in our state,” said Branstad, who said Iowa generates 20 percent of its electricity from wind, has a significant number of coal-fired plants and is seeing greater use of natural gas because costs have gone down.

But Branstad told that consumers must be protected as well. To achieve that, Branstad said, he has appointed Dandekar and former state Rep. Libby Jacobs, R-West Des Moines, to the Iowa Utilities Board.

“I have confidence in them and in the board to look out and protect the interests of the consumers in this process,” Branstad said.

Hogg said the decision should not be left to the board, which is now made up of three former state lawmakers — Dandekar and Jacobs and former state Rep. Darrell Hanson, R-Manchester — all of whom have a relationship with MidAmerican, he said.

“As people learn more and more about this issue, they realize that there’s really not a good case to be made for it,” Hogg said. “Nuclear power is basically the most expensive form of electricity that’s available. In Iowa, we have abundant alternatives. It really makes no sense for this state to try to become the guinea pig for the world on some sort of new nuclear technology when that’s not our future.”

The legislation last year cleared the Iowa House with a 68-30 vote on April 26, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, where an explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. Fifty-seven people died as a direct result of the incident, and up to 4,000 later died of cancer.

Iowa’s only nuclear power plant is the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo.

As of 2008, the United States had 104 commercial nuclear reactors licensed to operate at 65 nuclear power plants. Ground was broken on all 104 reactors in 1974 or earlier. Following the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would launch a comprehensive safety review of the nation’s nuclear power reactors at the request of President Barack Obama.

See the Iowa Utilities Board memo:

See House File 561:

Listen to the Rob Hogg interview:

Listen to the Anthony Carroll interview:

Listen to Branstad news conference:

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