Opponents turned out at the statehouse Wednesday to argue against a bill that would enact rules for approving new nuclear power plants in Iowa. The earthquake in Japan has slowed passage of the bill because of safety concerns. But critics at the hearing were more concerned about how much nuclear power would cost consumers.
House Commerce Committee chair, Chuck Soderberg, a Republican from LeMars, took the unusual step of holding another hearing on the bill, even though it’s already cleared a subcommittee and a full committee in the House.
“Because of the situation that we’ve observed over the last couple of weeks I thought it might be appropriate to just have an informal information meeting. And after being turned away from a Senate hearing last week, critics were out in force. The bill sets in place a regulatory framework for new nuclear plants. MidAmerican Energy says nuclear is one of the few viable options to meet increased energy demand.
But they admit it will be costly. And their critics could not agree more. Anthony Carroll spoke out against the bill on behalf of the AARP. “AARP strongly opposes H-F 561 because of cost concerns, not because of concerns about safety or the question of nuclear power or not,” Carroll says.
Carroll says under the bill, ratepayers, including those already struggling with their power bills, would bear the costs of constructing the plants. And that would be true even if in the end the plants are not built. Even some environmental groups are focusing on costs.
Steve Falk is with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Falk says they’ve heard it will cost everywhere from one to two billion dollars just for Mid American’s portion of the cost. Falk says instead of preparing for nuclear power, the state should compare the costs of alternative power sources. Falk and other critics point to cost overruns for unbuilt plants in other states.
But MidAmerican Energy’s President and C.E.O. Bill Furman answers the cost concerns point by point. Furman says the Iowa Utility Board will hold rate hearings and sign off on every penny. He outlined one scenario where the utility checks in with the board every 12 months.
“And let’s say we got to the utility board and say we’re going to spend a hundred-million dollars over the next twelve months on this project. They go through a contested rate hearing on that, they determine that yes those are prudent costs,” Furman says. Furman says if the cost ends up being $130-million instead, the board could say that extra $30-million isn’t prudent, so customers wouldn’t pay the cost.
MidAmerican cites an Illinois study showing the cost per kilowatt of nuclear power compares favorably with other alternatives. AARP’s spokesman says that doesn’t include the cost of building the plant. One critic at the hearing, a representative of the United Methodist Church, did raise safety concerns, both from nuclear accidents, and from the storage of spent fuel.
MidAmerican’s Bill Furman agrees that’s a concern. He says fuel and used fuel is clearly an issue when it comes to safety. Furman expressed confidence in President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission studying safe ways to store nuclear waste.
One House member says his constituents are encouraging lawmakers to wait another year to pass the bill until more answers come forward about the nuclear situation in Japan. Outside the committee room after the hearing, Representative Soderberg says he’s not inclined to wait.
“If they would begin to move forward today it would be late 2020 before a plant would be able to generate new energy, and so that’s a very long lead time especially in light when a new peak demand occurred last year,” Soderberg said. That’s a new peak demand for electricity in Iowa, even in an economic downturn.
It’s now up to the House Majority leader Linda Upmeyer whether to bring the bill to the full House for debate. Her aide says Upmeyer is generally supportive, but is vetting the bill to make sure ratepayers are protected.