MidAmerican Energy sparks controversy over recent nuclear energy plans


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Despite nuclear-power legislation running into legislative roadblock Tuesday, questions still linger about MidAmerican Energy's nuclear-energy plans.

The Des Moines-based company said it has formed a new renewable-energy division, and it is expanding its current wind-energy portfolio. Recently, an Iowa bill allowing MidAmerican to gather capital for a nuclear-power plant moved into committee. However, legislators canceled the discussion session because of legislative constraints.

MidAmerican said nuclear energy is essential for the state in the coming years.

"We're moving toward a carbon-constrained future," said Tina Potthoff, a MidAmerican media-relations manager. "Nuclear-power generation is one of the few alternatives to meeting Iowa's power needs."

She said the cost of coal and coal-transportation will "increase dramatically over the near future" because of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations and MidAmerican's contract negotiations with coal providers. This cost will force the company to look elsewhere for future power generation, she said.

"Until the Iowa Utilities Board gives us the go-ahead, we cannot raise rates to pay for a nuclear-power plant," Potthoff said, and MidAmerican is in the middle of a three-year feasibility study to determine "whether a nuclear plant is in our customers' and Iowa's best interests."

These actions follow MidAmerican raising its electric billing rate to compensate for changes in fossil-fuel regulations.

Because the committee session for the bill was canceled, Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, said he's unsure when the committee will meet again to vote on the bill. He said he is opposed to the bill but would not comment on the specifics before a debate was held in the committee.

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, said nuclear energy is essential to the state.

"It's important that Iowa is able to provide its base load," he said. "Renewables cannot be expected to do this."

He voted in favor of the bill when it went before the Iowa House last year. He called nuclear power the "greenest and most carbon-neutral form of energy we in Iowa have access to" and urged state senators to pass the bill.

Opponents of nuclear energy contend that MidAmerican's electricity-rate change is simply a thinly veiled means of paying for the company's nuclear plans.

"Even if MidAmerican doesn't build its plant, it would get all the funds from the rate hike and the tax credit," said Dave Murphy, the executive director of Food Democracy Now.

While Murphy approved of MidAmerican's renewable-energy initiative, he called it "halfhearted."

"MidAmerican wants Iowans to foot the risk for its wind farms but keep all the profits to build its nuclear plant," he said.

Nuclear power is not a sustainable alternative to renewable energies, Murphy said, or even to Iowa's current reliance on coal.

"We already have an infrastructure that supports coal," he said. "You don't transition to a new devil just because the old one goes out of fashion. You get away from devils altogether."

Murphy said instead of providing MidAmerican Energy with tax incentives, officials should instead extend current wind-farm incentives — set to expire at the end of the year — as part of Iowa's transition away from fossil fuels.

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