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Iowa Politics Roundup: House Approves Nearly $1 Billion in Property-Tax Relief - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Thursday, 12 May 2011 09:51

Some See Support Eroding for Nuclear-Power-Plant Bill

Opponents of a bill that would pave the way for MidAmerican Energy Company\ to construct an additional nuclear power plant in Iowa say support for the controversial bill has eroded and are hopeful it will fall by the wayside this legislative session.

“We know that just a few weeks ago, this bill had tremendous support,” said Steve Falck, a senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “But since some in the lobby like AARP and Wal-Mart now have gotten involved, senators are now stepping back.”

State Senator Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo), a former supporter of the legislation, said he’s now a “no” vote. He said Tuesday that support for the proposal has eroded, and that he believes a majority of the 50-member Iowa Senate is now opposed to the bill.

“We got the details and realized that the rate-payers really have to have all the risk in this thing,” Dotzler said. “There’s where the real concern comes from. I’m hearing it from my seniors back home and other people that are very concerned about this bill and its repercussions.”

MidAmerican Energy is proposing a nuclear power plant that would sit on about 700 acres – on land about the same size as Iowa’s only nuclear power plant, the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo. MidAmerican hasn’t increased its rates since 1995. Company President William Fehrman has said customers would see a rate increase of up to 10 percent during the next decade should the company proceed with construction of a new $1-billion to $2-billion nuclear power plant. Such a plant wouldn’t come online until 2020.

The bill paving the way for the nuclear power plant, House File 561, is one of the more controversial proposals of the 2011 legislative session. The legislation cleared the Iowa House with a 68-30 vote on April 26, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. However, the companion bill, Senate File 390, has yet to be debated in the Senate.

State Senator Swati Dandekar (D-Marion), the bill’s floor manager, denied Tuesday that the bill is officially dead this year. She said she’s just waiting for word from Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) that the bill will be debated in the Senate.

Dandekar said she has not taken a vote count on the bill, so she doesn’t know how many Senate Democrats would support it.

“We do need base load” energy, Dandekar said. “We are an industrial nation, and we are used to having electricity all the time. We are not used to blackouts and brownouts. To me, it is important that we consider nuclear energy as one of the options. I think this bill, in my view, really gives an option for nuclear energy as a base load. That’s what this bill does.”

Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley (R-Chariton) said he believes the votes are there to approve the bill. He estimated that 19 or 20 Republicans support the bill, along with about 13 Democrats in the Democrat-led Senate. Yet McKinley acknowledged that the bill likely will not come up for a vote this year.

“If Mike Gronstal wanted that bill to pass and be debated, he would have brought it up two weeks ago,” McKinley said.

The issue is one that crosses party lines. In the House, 12 Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the bill, while two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it.

“We still need to have base load electric generation in this state,” McKinley said. “To me, that means either coal or nuclear. It’s not wind; it’s not solar. I think natural gas can be used to supplement, but that’s such a volatile price and commodity item that I’m not sure that’s reasonable. Iowans are going to need to really decide if they want to have economic development. We’ve got to have sustainable, reliable, affordable electricity, and we’ve got to do something.”

AARP and environmental groups are key opponents to the bill, largely because it would authorize MidAmerican Energy, with permission from the Iowa Utilities Board, to increase customers’ rates upfront to pay for construction and preparation costs for a potential nuclear plant, even if that plant may never be built and even if costs increase.

The Iowa Utilities Board estimates that rates would increase about $7 a month, or about 10 percent on an average bill of about $70.

Dandekar said changes made to the bill would provide for more public input and allow MidAmerican Energy to recover its costs over 40 years, rather than just five to 10 years as originally drafted.

“This is a new approach to take away the sticker shock,” Dandekar said.

McKinley maintained that electric rates would go up regardless of whether this legislation is approved.

“The cost of doing it, at least entering into an examination of nuclear, is far less than the cost of doing nothing,” McKinley said. “Rate-payers will see their rates increase more if we do nothing, in my opinion, because of the lack of electric generation.”

The Iowa Association of Business & Industry and some labor unions support the legislation. Businesses are large consumers of energy, and many see nuclear as helping to provide that energy.

Labor unions, meanwhile, see the legislation as creating jobs. Supporters say the proposed nuclear power plant would create more than 500 new construction jobs and another 300 to 800 jobs that pay an average of $75,000 a year.

The Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO recently added its support to the bill, while Wal-Mart switched its lobbyist registration from “undecided” to “against.”

“Wal-Mart is very good [at] watching the bottom line,” Falck said. “They have stores in all 50 states, and the states that have passed similar legislation saw their electric rates jump, really spike. So they saw this legislation here and said, ‘Hey wait a second. This isn’t something that we want to be for, because we know what’s going to happen to the consumers.’”

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