Iowa Legislators Obfuscate the Risks of Nuclear Power

Whether we admit it or not, nuclear reactors have had things go wrong with them consistently over the years. We know the names of the biggest failures, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. There are others where the reactor released radioactive particles in a number of ways, something that is not supposed to happen. I am not trying to scare anyone, just sayin’ unexpected release of radioactivity is it is part of the cycle of generating electricity in a nuclear reactor. It is not supposed to happen, but sometimes does. A physician will tell us, there is no safe dosage of radiation.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor failure draws our attention to the language of obfuscation and diversion that would distract us from the inherent risks of operating a nuclear reactor. MidAmerican Energy’s President, Bill Fehrman has concluded that what happened in Japan would not happen if his company built a new nuclear reactor in Iowa, before the situation has been contained and remediated. According to Fehrman, new technology is designed to enable gravity flow of water to cool the core of a reactor should the electrical power to the reactor fail, as happened in Fukushima. Some legislators have taken this very specific statement and expanded upon it to assert the safety of a proposed new nuclear reactor in Iowa.

Representative Dan Huseman (R-53) wrote in a March 28 Legislative report, “Safety is a concern whenever talking about nuclear power. The technology being talked about by Mid-American Energy represents a major advance in how nuclear power is generated and how the environment is protected.”

Representative Chuck Soderberg (R-03) echoed this false assurance in the Le Mars Daily Sentinel on March 23. “Everybody wants a safe plan,” he said. “There were a lot of differences in what was used in that plant in Japan versus what would be used here in Iowa.”

Senator Paul McKinley (R-36) also weighed in in a March 25 note to constituents, “It is important to note that the tragic catastrophe in Japan and the plants there are generations behind in terms of safety and capability as compared to the plans being considered in Iowa.”

What these elected officials fail to mention is that MidAmerican Energy’s Fehrman assured the Senate Commerce Committee on March 17 by saying that the “light water reactor” technology, the same used in the Fukushima reactors, was proven and would be used in the final design of a small modular reactor. There is nothing new about light water reactor technology and Huseman, Soderberg and McKinley’s assurances to constituents seem disingenuous and uninformed.

These consistent talking points about small modular reactor technology block out the truth. Fehrman mentioned MidAmerican Energy is looking at two companies working on a design for small modular reactors (Babcock and Wilcox and NuScale Power). Neither has finished design work and both seek a financial partner, someone who is willing to build a cluster of them, before seeking design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Likewise, the technology of a small modular reactor would occur within the context of an engineered siting of a nuclear power plant, requiring another layer of design. Fehrman indicated during the March 17 meeting that there was no point in finishing this design work unless the legislature passed some version of SF 390 or HF 561 to clear financial hurdles for a project. How is it possible that legislators can assert the safety of a project that has neither been designed nor approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

It is the old saw that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it. Well don’t believe it. The Iowa legislature should step back and get all of the facts about the risks of a nuclear reactor and what alternatives to nuclear power are available before clearing the financial hurdles for MidAmerican and its parent, Berkshire Hathaway. This is not a talking point, it is just plain common sense, and worth repeating.

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