A Duane Arnold Energy Center eulogy

CBJ Editorial

When a prominent business or community leader dies or retires in ordinary times, there is a funeral or reception to honor them. But what happens when a prominent business or industry closes? Typically, nothing.

That is the sad situation this month with the abrupt closure of the Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa’s only nuclear power plant, two months earlier than expected. The DAEC, located eight miles northwest of Cedar Rapids near Palo sustained extensive damage to its cooling towers from the high winds of a derecho, and repairing them was deemed infeasible within the time remaining.

Majority ownership of DAEC was sold in 2006 by Alliant Energy’s Interstate Power and Light subsidiary to FPL Energy (now NextEra Energy Resources) based in Florida.

The DAEC was granted a 20-year license extension in 2010 after considerable investment, but was nevertheless slated to be decommissioned on Oct. 30 after Alliant Energy, the main power customer, paid $110 million in 2018 to end its power purchase agreement several years early due to unfavorable market conditions.

Community and economic development officials should mourn its loss because of the pronounced economic impact it will have on our region and on the climate. DAEC was the largest source of reliable clean energy in Iowa, powering the equivalent of more than 600,000 homes. It’s been one of most efficient and safely operated nuclear plants in the United States, according to NextEra, and generated about $255 million in annual spending in Iowa, according to a 2014 study by the Nuclear Energy Institute. That spending supported 1,100 jobs directly or indirectly.

The DAEC’s annual payroll during years when the reactor’s fuel rods were replaced was as much as $85 million for more than 500 employees. That’s over $100,000 per employee. Another way to look at it is to imagine losing an employer with 1,000 employees, each making $50,000 per year.

It’s worth noting that the full economic impact of DAEC won’t go away all at once, and staffing levels will diminish gradually. Decommissioning the plant is a costly long-term process that will take years, involving the removal of fuel rods from the reactor to steel cannisters and transferring them to dry fuel storage modules. NextEra says it could take up to 60 years to demolish the buildings on the site so that radioactivity in the structures to decay to a safe level for environmentally safe disposal.

Still, Linn County will be losing one of its largest sources of property taxes – an estimated $3 million annually – and the regional power grid will lose one of one of its most reliable base load power resources.

Tom Aller, the then-president of Interstate Power and Light Company, said that the DAEC almost singlehandedly kept the power on for Cedar Rapids and Linn County during the flood of 2008.

We’re disappointed that community and economic development officials weren’t more vocal in opposition to plans to the closing of DAEC as the economic impact begins to hit home. With the loss of millions of dollars in property taxes and employee paychecks and reliable clean energy, we may finally appreciate the scope of this loss. CBJ