The chief executive of MidAmerican Energy defended his company’s request for legislation that may eventually allow the utility to collect fees from its customers to cover the costs of building a new nuclear power facility in Iowa. MidAmerican president and C.E.O. William Fehrman testified for just over an hour before a panel of state senators Thursday afternoon.
Some of the senators’ questions focused on the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan. One of Fehrman’s responses was to list other disasters, from the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year to Thursday’s natural gas explosion in Minnesota. “There is no risk-free way to make electricity,” Fehrman said.
But Fehrman suggested there’s little comparison between the small, underground nuclear facilities MidAmerican is considering and the Japanese nuclear reactors that are now emitting plumes of radition. “There’ll be lessons learned coming out of Japan. There’ll be lessons learned coming from the results of the investigations and the other issues that come,” Fehrman said.
“But fundamentally when we look at where we’re at today, we’re really looking the differences in technologies, if you will, of a rotary-dial phone versus a smart phone that we’re going to be looking at trying to build. I mean, it’s that (significant) of a difference.” Fehrman cited a report from Illinois utility regulators, indicating the cost of wind and solar power was less than nuclear, but he stressed wind turbines and solar panels can’t provide a continuous source of electricity when the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining.
“Maybe nuclear isn’t the best answer, but it certainly is one that we should consider and keep it in the toolbox, if you will, over the next several months as we sort of look at where we’re at trying to solve the energy problem that’s going to come at us over the next five years and 10 years and 20 years down the road,” he told legislators.
And Fehrman suggested some federal grants may be snapped up for other projects if state legislators wait ’til next year to consider the proposal. The urgency of Fehrman’s message was lost on Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids. “He said the technology won’t even be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ’til at least 2015 or 2016, so what’s the rush for Iowa to do this?,” Hogg asked after the meeting.
But the bill appears to have strong support from key legislative leaders. Activists who’ve long opposed nuclear energy vow a vocal fight. Maggie McGill of Windsor Heights is part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “I worry about its impact on the environment,” she says, “especially when we look at the millions of gallons of water that have to be used to power a nuclear plant and then all of the nuclear waste that we might be carting across the country and dumping in some other state.”
Jane Majors of Des Moines says she’s been fighting against the use of nuclear power for more than four decades. “There is no peaceful atom,” Majors says. Maggie Rawland of Des Moines says public opinion has shifted sharply after what happened in Japan.
“They’re making a big mistake here in this legislature if they think they can ignore people,” she says. “So far they’re been more listening to the big money…from the big contractors and the utility companies.”