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Archive for April 24, 2011

Will the Iowa Legislature Go Nuclear?

Will the Iowa Legislature Go Nuclear?

by Paul Deaton

The answer to this question about House File 561/Senate File 390 is maybe.

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer (R-12) indicated there is “strong bipartisan support” for House File 561 during a recent press conference. While Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-50) has not declared anything but that he intends to “do what is best for Iowans,” if the Senate's Democratic caucus decides to debate SF 390, there are several paths towards passing the bill, although none of them guaranteed.

It has taken the legislature more time than expected to debate the bill and it is still a live round for the 2011 session. If debate on SF 390 or HF 561 is not held this session, because it is on the “unfinished business” list in both chambers, it could be taken up in the 2012 session without going back to committee.

At a $35 per plate breakfast meeting in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Bill Fehrman, CEO of MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company, talked about Iowa Energy policy. He applauded former Governor Vilsack and the Legislature for being forward thinking in investing in renewables. He didn't mention the new coal plant in Council Bluffs which is the opposite of renewable. It was Earth Day after all, and his appearance seemed partly about managing MidAmerican's reputation in the community.

In carefully worded language, Fehrman depicted his company like a supplicant (author's word) to the Iowa Utilities Board, a governmental body that exerts control over his company. He said that MidAmerican had no plans to build a nuclear reactor or make a proposal to the Iowa Utilities Board, but that nuclear is all that is left to solve his company's problems and he wants to keep it on the table as an option. How reasonable he seemed as we ate our diced melon and kolache.

MidAmerican is more than a supplicant and the bills in the legislature are designed to “keep nuclear power on the table” as an option for base load electricity. What does that mean? As Blog for Iowa reported in March 2010, MidAmerican Energy studied building a new nuclear reactor in Payette, Idaho and found nuclear power to be untenable financially. The project was canceled. The US nuclear future seemed to be unraveling despite the campaigns of MidAmerican Energy and others. This unraveling has increased post Fukushima. Check out my post here and the linked article from the Institute of Science in Society here.

HF 561/SF 390 are intended to remove the financial obstacles so that investors are willing to participate in building a nuclear reactor in Iowa. The trouble is that should the Iowa Utilities Board approve a new reactor, it would turn Iowa rate payers into a peculiar type of venture capitalists that make up front investment through advanced rate making and bear the risk if something goes wrong and the facility is not completed.

According to Follow The Money, MidAmerican Energy invested $88,100 in 2010 campaign contributions to 74 serving legislators. This does not include other contributions to political action committees, such as the $70,000 donated to a political action committee with ties to Senator Gronstal, reported by the Des Moines Register last week.  If the author was MidAmerican Energy, I would be calling in my markers to get a vote on the bills.

Sources told Blog for Iowa that MidAmerican lobbyists are phoning legislators this weekend. One suspects they are calling every legislator who could potentially vote for the measure, not just the ones to whose campaign they contributed. If MidAmerican's Fehrman wants to close a sale on building a new nuclear reactor in the future, he needs this vote or will have to face his boss to explain why his company is not making progress on solving the company's over-reliance on coal fired electricity in Iowa. As Bob Dylan said, “you gotta serve somebody,” and that applies to Mr. Fehrman like it does to the rest of us.

The toughest part of passing the bill will be in the Iowa Senate where the Democrats hold a 26-24 majority. Blog for Iowa expects the senate to go first since if they pass the measure, the House seems likely to concur. If and when the Democratic caucus discusses the bill, it will be the high water mark in this year's debate over nuclear power. Many of us would like to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.

If you care about Iowa's energy future, the session will end soon and now is the time to weigh in with your state senator on whether MidAmerican should be able to transfer the risks of nuclear power to rate payers.

~Paul Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend editor of Blog for Iowa. E-mail Paul Deaton

Click here to find your legislator. Ask them to vote no on HF 561/SF 390.