MidAmerican reveals possible sites for nuclear plant in Iowa

MidAmerican Energy is considering two possible locations for a new nuclear reactor in Iowa, Perry Beeman reported for the Des Moines Register on Friday.

Sites in Fremont County (in the southwest corner of Iowa) and Muscatine County (southeast, along the Mississippi River) are the only places MidAmerican is considering for its next new power plant,  company spokeswoman Tina Potthoff told Beeman.

Mike Crecelius, emergency management director for Fremont County, said rumors swirled in 2010 that the plant would be built near Thurman. When the Missouri River flooded last year, "people forgot about it."

This week's meeting immediately fanned dissension, Crecelius said. "There are people in this county who have heard rumors and say, 'we have to fight this, we don't this here.' They aren't looking at the big picture," including potential jobs, Crecelius said.

Potthoff stressed that MidAmerican has not decided to build a nuclear plant or any other plant, for that matter.  She said the meetings were designed to inform landowners that MidAmerican would be drilling five, 100-foot-deep soil cores in several location as part of its site selection work. A decision on when to build a plant, and what type, will come later, Potthoff said.

MidAmerican executives have previously indicated that they would not pursue a new nuclear reactor unless Iowa adopts a law shifting most of the project's costs and risks onto ratepayers. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad supports such legislation, which passed the Republican-controlled Iowa House in 2011 but never came up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate that year or in 2012.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal supported MidAmerican's proposal, there were strong voices against it in the Democratic Iowa Senate caucus from the beginning. Anti-nuclear sentiment gained ground among Democratic senators during the 2012 legislative session, with some members vowing to put up roadblocks if the bill is ever debated on the Senate floor.

I don't see this bill passing unless Republicans win control of the Iowa Senate in the November election. The Des Moines Register paraphrased Democratic State Senator Matt McCoy as saying "MidAmerican CEO William Fehrman told him the utility most likely will either convert a coal plant to burn gas, or build a new gas plant, rather than pursue a nuclear plant anytime soon." McCoy chaired the Iowa Senate Commerce Committee during the 2012 legislative session and got the nuclear legislation through his committee with Republican help.

Like the Iowa Environmental Council's Nathaniel Baer, I believe MidAmerican should focus on meeting electricity production needs through renewable energy or energy-efficiency measures. Leaving aside any environmental or consumer protection concerns, nuclear power construction projects don't create as many jobs as projects focused on energy-efficiency or renewable electricity production.

That said, either retrofitting a coal-fired power plant for natural gas or building a natural gas-fired power plant would be a better choice for MidAmerican than building a new nuclear reactor. Even if the Iowa legislature passes the nuclear bill and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves the modular reactor design MidAmerican wants to use, a decade might pass before a reactor is built, and the utility's ratepayers would take on most of the costs and risks. In contrast, retrofitting a coal-fired plant could happen quickly.

On a related note, some of MidAmerican's coal-fired plants are among Iowa's largest air polluters. Alliant Energy is creating jobs and improving public health as well as the environment by installing stack scrubbers at a large power plant in Ottumwa.  

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