Iowa is ignoring the most efficient clean energy source — nuclear

The former nuclear power site at Duane Arnold Energy Center in 2003. (The Gazette)

Windmills are so common in Iowa that they are featured on our state license plate, cementing the identity of the windmill in our community and in a mental picture of the Iowa plains. Solar panels have also become increasingly common as they can provide efficient small sources of energy for houses and farms with large roofs to host the panels.

The idea of solar farming fits into our state ethos as America’s producers and providers. Iowa’s farmers feed the world and our ethanol corn powers the country. It seems like a natural next step to venture into this new farming phase. However, even though these clean energy initiatives are exciting, one major piece of the puzzle is missing in our state — nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants hawd a 9 percent share of total U.S. generation capacity in 2019 but produced 20 percent of the country’s electricity due to their reliable energy output. Iowa until recently had only one functioning nuclear reactor hosted in a large building in Palo that employed about 600 people.

Duane Arnold opened in 1974. A larger plant in Vandalia as well as other locations were preliminarily planned, but due to cost, perceived risk and anxiety over radiation, many plans were tossed out.

The plant director cited reasons for closing as the inability of the small plant to keep up with cheaper energy as well as cost of damage from the Derecho. It’s worth noting that there are considerable tax incentives for individuals and companies to install wind turbines and solar panels.

This decommissioned nuclear site will be the location of a large NextEra Energy solar farm spanning 3,500 acres in Palo. The new solar project is expected to bring in a $700 million investment, $41.6 million in tax revenue and around 300 construction jobs.

Let’s compare wind turbine power potential, the most popular clean energy source in our state, to nuclear energy: On average, 3,000 turbines have been built in the U.S. each year since 2005. Right now in the U.S. there are 68,792 turbines with a total rated capacity of 121,431 megawatts. Nuclear energy has by far the highest capacity factor of any other energy source. This basically means nuclear power plants are producing maximum power more than 93 percent of the time during the year. That’s about 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants, according to the Department of Energy.

That reliability is important because renewable plants are considered intermittent or variable sources and are mostly limited by a lack of fuel, meaning sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the winds aren’t very strong. In the future, energy plants will likely be built with one renewable power source and one reliable power source like coal or nuclear power.

Duane Arnold is located near the borders of Benton and Linn County. Following the announcement of the plant closure, an article ran in the Des Moines Register claiming there was finally hope for Iowans to have “less cancer” plaguing our communities.

Although I disagreed with the article’s celebratory tone regarding the plant closure, the numbers presented painted a scary narrative that at first glance seem rather alarming.

The author stated “In Benton and Linn Counties … the cancer rates in children age 19 and younger was 7% above the Iowa rate in the period before Duane Arnold operated.” And “from 2013 to 2017, the Linn County child cancer rate was 20% above the state’s. … For Linn County residents under age 50 who lived near Duane Arnold most or all of their lives, the cancer rate was 15% higher than the state.”

When looking into these figures a bit further, we can see that Benton County is actually in the lower half of all Iowa county’s cancer incidence rate and Linn County’s cancer incidence rate is about in the middle of the pack. Palo Alto County, hours north of the town of the nuclear plant, has the highest cancer incidence rate in the state and there has never been a nuclear energy plant in that county.

Linn County is the second largest country in the state, with convenient access to cancer screening facilities. Similar to COVID testing, the more we screen for something, the more of that disease we will uncover.

It’s good to locate and identify cancer for treatment, of course, but it’s worth noting that people who live in (relatively) proximity to a nuclear power plant might be more likely to be tested for cancer because of the perceived radiation threat, even though they are not exposed to meaningful levels of radiation.

Furthermore, there is evidence that higher background radiation levels are associated with slightly longer life expectancy, according to a study by BGU and Nuclear Research Center Negev scientists. Background radiation is an ionizing radiation that exists in the environment from natural sources. It includes radiation coming from outer space, and radiation from earth based sources. With higher background radiation levels, life expectancy actually increased. This seems counterintuitive to the information we are fed from television shows and movies on radiation exposure, yet it follows the still emerging science on nuclear radiation.

Now, this of course doesn’t mean that people haven’t been seriously injured from radiation exposure from living next to nuclear power plants that disregard safety procedures. However there is solid evidence to support that living in proximity to a modern, well monitored nuclear plant will have no negative effects on the surrounding communities.

Energy production is a collaborative and diverse field that’s becoming more tailored to community needs. Attaching solar panels on top of apartment buildings, to stoplights and on houses is a wise way to take advantage of the sun’s energy but using Iowa farmland is a high opportunity cost considering the area could be used to produce food rather than the more unpredictable solar energy storage.

Fear mongering about nuclear power and romanticizing inefficient wind and solar energy for large scale use without other reliable sources is foolish. People who have a vested, financial interest in producing and financing lower risk energy production are not reliable sources for Iowa’s energy planning. We need to follow science and lead with logic instead of fear of innovation.

Patricia Patnode is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: patricia.patnode@thegazette.com