Editorial: Study reveals Duane Arnold Energy Center could be restarted

Workers perform maintenance at the Duane Arnold Energy Center after the plant was shut down for refueling.
Workers perform maintenance at the Duane Arnold Energy Center after the plant was shut down for refueling. CBJ FILE PHOTO

There’s a glimmer of hope to correct the region’s biggest economic blunder in a generation: the shutting down of the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) — formerly Iowa’s only nuclear power plant.

NextEra Energy Resources, owner of the DAEC, recently conducted a feasibility study to determine if the nuclear power plant could be restarted. The DAEC was originally scheduled to stop operations in October 2020, but closed in August 2020 after the derecho damaged the cooling towers.

The feasibility study revealed that the DAEC, which is currently in the process of being decommissioned, could be restarted, but not without significant investment, according to a source familiar with the study. Many essential buildings and transmission infrastructure items have been removed and will need to be rebuilt, but nothing fundamental would prevent the restarting of the plant except for significant financial support from the federal and state governments. 

NextEra declined to comment.

A recent reinvestment in a shutdown nuclear plant in Michigan could provide a blueprint for success.

The Palisades Nuclear Power plant in southwest Michigan shut down in 2022 and was in the process of being decommissioned, but changing economics and politics have led to a $1.5 billion loan from the federal government to restart the plant.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a news report that it would be the first nuclear power plant to be reopened in the U.S. It still faces hurdles, including inspections, testing and the blessing of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, known as the NRC.

Like it or not, economics and politics drive the utility industry. Unfortunately, when the purchase power agreement (PPA) between NextEra and Alliant Energy didn’t make financial sense for Alliant, they sought and received approval from the Iowa Utilities Board to recover a one-time $110 million payment allowing the utility to end its PPA five years early.

Alliant and NextEra officials said in news reports the closure of the DAEC should save Alliant’s customers about $300 million over 21 years, starting in 2020.

Had the Iowa Utilities Board used a little more foresight and denied Alliant’s request, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

The other option would have been for the state and federal government to incentivize NextEra to keep the plant open as a merchant power plant on the competitive wholesale power marketplace. They squandered that opportunity, and thus its closure was planned.

What wasn’t taken into consideration at the time was the rapidly-changing energy landscape.

There has been a frenzied push to utilize more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and away from coal to meet aggressive greenhouse goals. Without maintaining a robust nuclear power portfolio, meeting those goals would be impossible.

The other aspect that wasn’t considered at the time of DAEC’s closure was the need for massive data storage facilities like the Google data centers now being considered in Cedar Rapids and in Davenport. Those data storage facilities need a tremendous amount of energy and require that it be readily available and, ideally, clean — and the owners don’t want to be captive to just one utility company.

We are a long way from turning this feasibility study into actually restarting the DAEC, but we are hopeful that what is happening in Michigan can also happen here in Iowa. Restarting the DAEC is the right thing to do.