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Iowa still mulling nuclear power after crisis

Andrew Duffelmeyer
Associated Press

Des Moines, IA — Japan’s nuclear disaster has chilled support for nuclear projects across the United States. But in Iowa, where the state’s largest utility is considering a new nuclear plant, some momentum has continued to the surprise of both critics and some supporters.

MidAmerican Energy, the state’s largest utility, has proposed building a plant with one or more small modular nuclear reactors that could be on line as early as 2020. It would become the state’s second nuclear facility.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, swamping the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex and causing a nuclear crisis, have put a damper on talk of nuclear ventures in other states.

But in Iowa, legislative leaders have kept alive a proposal that would help make a new plant there more feasible financially. They placed on a list of pending business a measure that would allow MidAmerican to begin billing customers in advance for the cost of the project. The action prevented the measure from expiring for lack of action.

“For some reason it seems like the Fukushima accident really hasn’t happened in Iowa,” said one surprised opponent, Michele Boyd, who focuses on nuclear safety for the Washington-based Physicians for Social Responsibility. “It has not affected the politics in Iowa, but everywhere else people are saying now is not the time to build a new reactor.”

John Laitner, of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which lobbies against nuclear energy, said his group was also confused.  “I don’t quite know what’s generating momentum here, but it seems different than other places.”

The measure still may not win approval before the Legislature adjourns in less than a month. Republican Gov. Terrry Branstad has not decided whether he would sign it. And any nuclear project would face formidable regulatory and financial challenges.

But Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Branstad, said the idea of more nuclear energy has attracted some bipartisan support because tighter federal regulations on fossil fuel-powered power plants have made them increasingly costly.

MidAmerican has continued to push for the early-billing measure, which supporters say would save consumers money in the long run because the utility wouldn’t have to borrow as much later for construction, and thereby avoid some interest costs. A proposed Iowa plant would cost at least $1 billion.

The measure sailed through House and Senate committees before the Japan earthquake hit.

Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines Democrat who opposes the measure, said nearly all the Senate Republicans would vote for the bill, along with some Democrats.

“I think leadership in both parties and in both chambers and the governor want this to move forward,” he said, “and that’s a big mistake.”

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