As the federal government continues to push nuclear power as a viable energy alternative for the future, some areas of the country that have backed off nuclear in the past appear to be trying to fight their way back into the game.
In Iowa, Governor Chet Culver signed a bill last week that sets the stage for potential nuclear development for the first time since the mid 1970s. Meanwhile, a recent agreement in California could bring the French nuclear manufacturer Areva to the state despite a 34-year-old ban. No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. for three decades, but those and other states may be positioning themselves for lucrative federal dollars down the road.
Iowa, Illinois and Elsewhere
The Iowa legislation, House File 2399, requires utility companies to begin studying the possibility of expanding nuclear power. Currently, Iowa has only one nuclear plant, the 580-megawatt Duane Arnold reactor, about 100 miles northeast of Des Moines. The plant, which came online in 1975, provides close to 10 percent of the state's power. No new construction has been undertaken since then.
The long layoff is not unique, and several states still have long-standing bans on new nuclear construction. In Illinois, easily the largest producer of nuclear power in the country—with six plants and 11 reactors providing close to 50 percent of the state's power—a moratorium on new plants is currently being threatened in the state legislature. Earlier this year, the Illinois State Senate voted 40 to 1 to overturn the ban, in spite of an ongoing lack of a permanent storage facility for high-level radioactive waste.
According to Dave Kraft, director of the Chicago, Illinois-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, a nuclear watchdog group, the state legislative session will most likely end this week without the bill making it out of committee in the House.
"In essence that kills it, but we're also told that no one can ever predict what will happen in future sessions," Kraft said. "The House hates the [moratorium] repeal. If it does get through, it won't be on its merits, it will be on sneakiness," he added.
Kraft suggested the controversial measure could get tacked onto a larger bill and pushed through the back door.
Moratoria on nuclear construction in other states have come under fire as well in the recent past. Mixed in with the Clean Energy Jobs Act introduced in the Wisconsin State Legislature in January was a repeal of that state's moratorium, which was established in 1983. The bill faced opposition to the nuclear provisions and to some of the efficiency and economics issues covered, and never reached a floor vote.
According to the Maryland-based Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS), a non-profit nuclear watchdog group, six other states fought off attacks on their moratoria in 2009—from Kentucky to Minnesota and Hawaii.
For Diane D'Arrigo, the radioactive waste project director at NIRS, the simple presence of those challenges reveals a massive industry push to move nuclear power forward.
"I think that the threat of [repealed moratoria] is very real, that the industry is still very committed to doing what it can and to buying all the influence that it can, and it has been very successful at that," she said. "But I think that public challenges to that and the push for real solutions will prevail."
Radioactive Waste: California to France
Perhaps the most interesting challenge comes in California, observers say, where a ban on nuclear construction has been in place since 1976. A California company called Fresno Nuclear Energy Group wants to build an "energy farm" in the large, mostly agricultural area in the middle of the state known as the Central Valley. This farm includes plans for solar and wind installations, a water desalination plant and a nuclear reactor, despite the ban.
"The moratorium says that there has got to be a permanent place to dispose of the spent fuel," said John Hutson, the president and CEO of the Fresno group.
"France recycles 96 percent of it. Japan, until they opened their recycling facility, [was] sending it to France to be recycled. So we want to send ours to France to be recycled. And we think we can meet the terms of the moratorium."
The company believes that by shipping the radioactive waste out of the country, the law forbidding new reactors would not apply. Hutson also said that attitudes in the state have changed since the mid-1970s, and that the ban should be overturned.
According to Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate with the California chapter of the environmental group Sierra Club, at least one legislator in the state has continually tried to get that particular ball rolling: Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who is running against Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate in 2010.
"Every year [DeVore] has a bill in an attempt to lift the moratorium, and every year that bill dies in the first committee," Metropulos said. "The legislature has shown no appetite to lift the moratorium. I do not see that changing."
Hutson, though, doesn't see the moratorium as an obstacle. The Fresno group recently signed a memo of understanding with the French nuclear manufacturer Areva to build a 1,600-megawatt reactor on the site. The Areva EPR reactor design, however, has yet to be approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Hutson said they are moving forward anyway, though the company's initial completion goal of 2017 will likely be pushed back.
"We think it might be more like 2020, or ten years, and about four of those years are getting our license through the NRC," he told SolveClimate.
Metropulos does not see the plant's construction as likely without movement on the state moratorium.
"If [the Fresno group] think they can do that and get around the current law, more power to them," Metropulos said. "I don't think what they think actually floats."
Many other states do not have moratoria in place —only about 12 do—but even those that have the legal greenlight are seeing the nuclear momentum get held up recently.
In Georgia, the first two reactors to be singled out for multi-billion dollar federal loan guarantees hit a bump in the road last week, when a judge ruled the certification process was illegal. Skyrocketing costs of other plants have put them on hold in the past, and environmentalists like Kraft and Metropulos think there is ample reason to simply stop trying.
Kraft said President Obama has touted clean coal technology, new offshore drilling as well as nuclear in speeches this year as the three pillars of a new energy economy.
The billions of dollars potentially coming from Washington to help build nuclear reactors may be enticing, said Metropulos, but the pushback on the state level might indicate a lack of real motivation.
"Although the federal government seems to want to put out a lot of subsidies, I don't think the people will buy it," he said. "I think there are other ways that people will go about energy production rather than looking at nuclear."