NRC: Iowa's Hero or Villain?

Nuclear Power? No Thanks

During Iowa’s debate over HF 561, an act relating to the permitting, licensing, construction and operation of nuclear generating facilities, it seems unclear whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is a villain or a hero. Proponents of nuclear power have cited the NRC as both, which indicates, there is no consensus, but that as many advocates do, they use whichever role best suits the argument of the day.

Representatives of MidAmerican Energy have repeatedly counseled audiences that the regulatory agencies, the Iowa Utilities Board and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would look out for the interests of the public should they move forward with plans to build a nuclear reactor in Iowa. When a person is trying to assuage concerns, it is only appropriate to remind audiences of the protections of regulatory agencies.

At the same time, in response to my post on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) last weekend, proponents of the technology spoke out in chorus about the dithering of the NRC and how it holds back advancement of a technology that in their words is ready for prime time.

Rod Adams posted this comment on Blog for Iowa, “I take strong exception to the idea that small light water reactors are unproven technology. American engineers invented and developed light water reactors nearly 60 years ago and has (sic) built hundreds of power plants that fit the definition of what we are now calling ‘small, modular reactors’ (SMRs).”

So what’s the problem with SMRs if it is not the technology? Both Adams and other commentators point to the long approval process of the NRC, which is very costly for developers. In my view, there are two things that matter more than the perceived cumbersomeness of the NRC process.

The public doesn’t like the current legislation, as indicated in a recent poll published by the Des Moines Register on Feb 21, where 77 percent of Iowans “oppose rules allowing a utility to charge its customers up front for the costs to plan and build a nuclear power plant.” It is more than anti-nuclear groups such as Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Sierra Club who dislike HF 561.The efforts to peg opposition to nuclear power as a left-wing advocacy effort fall flat. The 77 percent who oppose this bill include people from every part of the political spectrum, and such unlikely advocacy partners as Walmart, the Sierra Club and AARP.

Secondly, while the NRC may be the current whipping boy of the nuclear industry, if the technology has been viable for decades, what is the flippin’ problem? Even the most inefficient of industries can produce a product more often than in the 30 years since the last nuclear reactor was built in the United States. Adams cites, “the only reason that no SMRs are currently licensed is that conventional wisdom in nuclear engineering for 50 years was that bigger was better.” This is precisely the argument used by Representative Chuck Soderberg, floor manager for HF 561, during the House debate, that electric utilities require large scale production capabilities that can be turned on and off to meet demand. Apparently proponents of SMRs get no relief from the legislators who favor HF 561, although Soderberg would likely support SMRs if asked directly.

I can understand someone who has worked as a nuclear engineer wanting to see a lifetime of work come to fruition by building a SMR. But seriously, President Obama has supported nuclear power, there is federal incentive money available, the Price Anderson Act transfers excess liability to the federal government in the event of a large scale failure like what happened at Chernobyl or Fukushima, and the Department of Energy holds title to spent nuclear fuel. It seems clear to this writer, that whatever whining the nuclear industry may do, they are already a favored lot.

Nuclear power is a bad choice for Iowa’s energy future, or in the usage of one of my neighbors, “that dog won’t hunt.”

~ Paul Deaton is a native Iowan and regular contributor to Blog for Iowa.

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