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Iowa’s future: ethanol, wind ... and nukes?

Some questions require answers before proceeding with nuclear power

May 13, 2012
Messenger News

It is surely a tribute to the improved technology of nuclear energy plants that amid the radioactive debate in the Statehouse to allow MidAmerican Energy to build a nuke plant somewhere in the heart of Iowa, the only real concern seems to be how much it will make utility bills go up, not hysteria over the odd chance that a screw-up could melt the faces off folks in a handful of counties.

Iowans are a practical lot, and their first thought is what a $2 billion project could do to their monthly bills if investors don't step up to bite on it. Not the fact that, say, a nuclear facility in an approachable rural setting in the heart of the county's food supply production chain might be an attractive target for terrorists or just plain nut-jobs. Or, say, what a tornado like the one that tossed buildings in Varina around like Barbie Dream Houses last summer could do to the best-laid of engineering safety plans.

I understand that the problems seen in Japan involve generation-old plant technology, and that a tsunami in the middle of Iowa is nearly as unlikely a scenario as a Chicago Cubs World Series appearance.

What does nag at the corner of my mind, however, is that the Japan disasters do show that we have yet to achieve the technology to counter leaking radiation or to really clean it up if there ever would be a worst-case incident, and I'm not even quite sure there is yet an end-all plan to deal with nuclear production waste.

To honor the politicians for their foresight, I suggest they put it right next to their Statehouse in Des Moines.

Seriously, though, it is clear that the other alternative - archaic coal mining and burning - isn't exactly a wonderful choice, either, in terms of safety or environment. It's not a perfect world. The choice is one or the other, at least for the foreseeable future.

I wonder, though ... Iowa has worked hard to build a reputation as a leader in the renewable energy fields. Over more than a decade it has led the way in wind-farming and biofuels. If indeed we throw massive resources and attention behind a nuclear plant, with the understanding that its business model is to return funding that could be used for the next plant, and so on, will Iowa still have the will to lead in the "green" energy production fields? Will we have the funding capability left to explore new possibilities in solar or biofuels if they present themselves? Would we be hurting wind and especially ethanol, which haven't exactly had steadfast support from the national politicians of late already, and in turn hurt the farm economy that they have helped mightily to prop up? This past ag year has been perhaps the most profitable in memory, and the state economy would be in a world of hurt right now if that wasn't the case.

I'm not saying we should never build a nuclear plant - I'm saying that we darn sure better know all of the implications before we take that step, a step we can't well reverse. What are the risks, in safety and economics, and what are the benefits?

Among the latter, jobs, certainly. Probably some new programs for some of the colleges to train nuclear workers. Property taxes for the site, which I'm told would be divided among all of the counties that MidAmerican serves. And of course, a dependable source for energy production that doesn't require strip mining, and if all goes as we are told it would, would have minimal impact on the air and water.

We can and should investigate nuclear energy as a possibility. But we shouldn't just rubber stamp it because it promises jobs, payroll, construction, property taxes and growth - all those wonderful things we like to collectively term "economic development" that tend to get politicians re-elected.

As rosy a picture as proponents paint for a nuclear-era Iowa, we have to ask every question and investigate every scenario on this one, including that big, "what if something goes wrong?" one. As one state leader put it, it is a "1,000 years" kind of decision.

So why, I wonder, has the legislature been rushing again this session to hand the utility company approval to start shopping this project on Wall Street, when, or so I've read, MidAmerican has not even yet completed and turned over a three-year feasibility plan to determine if the project will work as expected?

I'm trying hard not to be my jaded, suspicious self here, and I will not go so far as to suggest that the $90,000 in political contributions the utility company has made to a committee tied to the Senate Majority Leader and to the committee for the governor - after the election was over - has anything to do it.

The state leaders say MidAmerican's contributions haven't gotten it any special treatment. Gov. Terry Branstad hasn't weighed in much on the issue at this point, and MidAmerican claims that its political gifts had nothing to do with the fact that it was about to seek the legislature's blessing for a billion-dollar project. You can make up your own mind on that one.

I can tell you one of the committee leaders who has voted to adopt an amendment that somewhat addresses consumer price protection concerns, and thus helps the issue to the Senate floor for debate, is Steve Kettering, an area senator out of Lake View, known for voting his conscience. (And, since he is retiring after this term, the lure of campaign donations isn't going to sway him.)

Sen. Daryl Beall, from Fort Dodge, has made passionate arguments against the bill as well, asking whether any nuclear reactor can be considered fully safe. What a conundrum! If our leaders can't begin to agree, how can workaday Iowans know which side of the fence to stand (or kneel covering our heads, as the case may be.).

Questions to ask? Why is Iowa now turning to the form of power that eight European nations have already banned or begun to phase out? If nuclear energy is such a safe option, why were zero plants built in the U.S. from 1974 to 2010? What do we know now that they didn't know when plants in Japan and Russia were designed, in places where people can now never return to their homes in their lifetimes?

On the other side of the coin, if nuclear plants are so dangerous, why have all 39 active reactors in the U.S. served without incident for so many years and still receive renewal permits to continue to operate?

I am no expert on nuclear power financing, but I would like to hear the attorney general chime in on the funding mechanism here. If banks and investors aren't rushing to get in on this project, should taxpayers? Will we benefit, or are we just serving as bank for a big utility company here, taking the risk so that they can take the profit? How much might the average Iowan's electricity bill go up to pay for this project - and will that happen years before the plant ever comes on line to start covering the price to the public?

There is much we do not yet know. We will need to make a wise decision on the issue's merits, not its politics.

In my heart, I do know that technology has surely advanced greatly since the building of those names that strike a chilling chord in us - Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukishima.

Still, I must admit. If this thing were being built behind my house, I don't think I'd sleep all that well at night.

Dana Larsen is editor of Pilot-Tribune in Storm Lake. He was formerly a writer at The Messenger.

 
 

 

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