Iowa (and Bill Gates) could lead the way

BY GUEST COLUMN | MAY 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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Everywhere you turn, someone is having a "green" energy conference or an "environmental" awareness day. These events focus on solar and wind energy, on electric cars, on reducing your carbon footprint, and living a sustainable life. What they do not focus on is increasing the use of the greenest energy of all — nuclear energy.

Wait, you say, "Nuclear energy is dangerous and scary. It blows up. We can't have more of it. All that waste. It's not 'green.' " Yes, we can — and we already do.

More than 30 percent of the world's nuclear energy is produced in the United States. We have 104 nuclear reactors, producing more than 800 billion kWh per year. The plants run at about 91 percent of capacity. Significantly, recent plant upgrades, combined with operating and maintenance efficiencies, have greatly increased the amount of power produced from each plant.

In 1990, the output was 577 billion kWh per year, and average capacity was only 66 percent. No new plants have been started since 1977, but most of those currently in operation have had the operational permits extended and are expected to continue operating for many more years.

None of these plants have blown up, and none have released dangerous levels of radiation into our communities. Nuclear plants produce no dreaded CO2. Most of us do not even know where the plants, located in 31 different states, are. The plants have not caused "environmental destruction," as alleged by opponents.

Some opponents of nuclear energy claim that wind and solar power can be used to replace nuclear power. However the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an Ohio case recently rejected this claim. In a 5-0 vote, the agency ruled that the claim against a new plant was "unsupported by evidence" and that the potential capacity of wind generation was "insufficient" to show viability as baseload power able to generate more than 900 megawatts of energy per year.

Nuclear energy has been in the news more this year in Iowa, as a result of proposed legislation that would facilitate a potential new plant by MidAmerican Energy. In March, the Senate Commerce Committee passed House File 561. Before committee passage, the bill was amended to provide increased fiscal oversight by the Iowa Utilities Board. Additionally, it would prevent MidAmerican from pre-billing customers for costs associated with a possible new 540-megawatt plant. Other components of the bill would prevent MidAmerican from increasing rates for low-income customers and require the plant to be built, if it was approved.

Nationally, since 2007 16 license applications have been initiated with the NRC, which would result in 24 new nuclear reactors. While many of these applications will not be followed to completion, as many as six new traditional reactors are projected to be operational in the next eight years.

On an international basis, the projections are for as many as 96 small modular reactors to be built in the next 18 years. The reactors built with the that technology would be self-contained units — made from a simpler design, able to be built in a factory, and have lower on-site costs. The reactors would be buried underground. All of these factors would make the units safer and more cost effective. They would be about 75 feet long by 12 feet wide and could be moved from the factory on a rail car. The unit resembles a "nuclear battery." This design would also protect the power plant from "tornadoes, hurricanes, or tsunamis." 

At this time, the U.S. Department of Energy has signed agreements for three demonstration small modular reactors at Savannah River in South Carolina. These units, from 180 to 300 megawatts each, could power 200,000 homes for a year. This size allows for one to become operational and another to then be easily added when more capacity is needed. It also mitigates the enormous up-front costs for a full-size reactor project, which can reach $7 billion and take many years to get approved and built. This is the issue facing Mid-American Energy and the Iowa Legislature.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is also encouraging innovative development of nuclear energy. He has invested in the development of fourth-generation nuclear-power-plant designs, which would run on leftover fuel from current plants and would require few, or no, humans to operate on a daily basis. He is also skeptical about the long-term viability of wind and solar power because of problems with reliability and storage.  

In discussing nuclear power at several national conferences in February and March of this year Gates said, "There is no inherent reason why nuclear power needs to be expensive."

Further, he supports nuclear energy as an "energy miracle," and clean technology. Finally, he characterized the inexpensive energy potential of nuclear energy for developing countries and poor people as a "vaccine" that would improve their lives significantly. 

Iowa could take the lead in America's energy future by supporting new nuclear-energy technology and encouraging innovation. And Gates could join us in leading the way — or at least send his checkbook.

Deborah D. Thornton
research analyst
Institute Brief, Public Interest Institute

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