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The Nuclear Option

The nuclear age is knocking at Idaho's door. How will the state answer?

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When Joe Weatherby began to draft an energy plan for Owyhee County, he had no idea he'd make such a stir. Weatherby, who sits on the Owhyee County planning and zoning commission, had witnessed the dust-up over the Sempra Energy coal-fired power plant proposal from 2006. He also noticed, after some study, just how much potential his southwest Idaho county had for the production of energy by harvesting renewable resources. Solar, geothermal and wind; Owyhee County, Weatherby figured, had it all.

It could be a new era. But his county wasn't really ready to make decisions about just what sort of energy business it should allow.

Like most Idaho counties, large energy production just wasn't the sort of development they'd seen before. It's one thing to say yes or no to a new subdivision. It's quite another to review a plan to build a power plant, whether fueled by coal, wind or nuclear power.

But that time has come. Idaho already has two nuclear power plants in the offing, and wind farms are becoming increasingly attractive to investors.

"I decided there are two things that are going to control our life from here on out: water and energy," Weatherby said. "I started studying and reading."

He began to bone up on alternative energy technology. He took an online course and got certified to install solar panels. He read research. He attended a clean-energy conference in Boise.

He also figured that Owyhee County was sitting in the middle of some major renewable resource potential. Before things got away from them, he wondered aloud, in a meeting, if Owyhee County shouldn't be studying this question some more. So in April of last year, the Owyhee County Commission took him up on the notion and agreed to create an energy task force. They made Weatherby its chairman. The three-person committee got to work and began drafting an actual energy plan for the county, the first of its kind in Idaho.

Which is where things got sort of sticky.

Timing is Everything

Politically, Weatherby's plan couldn't have emerged at a more pivotal time for discussions on Idaho's energy.

Owyhee County is the location of choice for a planned nuclear power plant, to be developed by Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc., a company with little apparent funding but plenty of promises.

Weatherby's energy plan came to life about the same time Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the state's majority Republican leadership were fending off ideas from Democratic lawmakers to create a statewide process to regulate just where and how major energy production ideas should come to life.

The problem lay in Weatherby's creation, and his county's approval, of an energy plan that put a much higher priority on renewable energy than on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

In the text of the plan, which was approved by the county commission in December 2007, Weatherby makes it plain that although the county would willingly consider most types of energy production proposals, nuclear power is definitely low on the totem pole of priorities. In fact, nuclear power is given roughly the same value as a fossil-fuel power plant, like the coal-fired power plant that was opposed by Magic Valley residents and, ultimately, the Idaho Legislature last year.

That's not because Weatherby is some sort of wide-eyed greenie. He'd done his homework and felt that Owyhee had more to gain from more creative uses of renewable energy resources he insists the area has.

Wind potential? Huge, he thinks. According to some researchers, Idaho ranks as the 13th windiest state in the nation. According to the Idaho Energy Commission, 42 wind farm projects around the state are in various stages of development, with a combined potential output of 1,500-2,000 megawatts of electricity. Since 1 megawatt is enough juice to power 650 homes, current plans would be enough to power 1.3 million.

Owyhee County may not have as much wind as other parts of the state, Weatherby admits, but it has the type of topography that will make it easier to build upon.

"Other counties might have high potential, but have rugged mountains," Weatherby said. "You'd be frowned upon if you tried to put windmills on top of Mount Borah."

Geothermal power? Also huge potential, Weatherby believes. He is aware of the doubts about this energy source, which produces heat and hot water. But the sort of industries that could sprout from the usage of geothermal energy don't necessarily need water hot enough to wash dishes.

"We can have a complete greenhouse economy," Weatherby said. "From growing alligators to tilapia to green algae for biofuels. There's probably enough if not more geothermal wells in Owyhee County than the rest of the state combined."

Nuclear power, by contrast, troubled Weatherby. He'd been studying the work of experts like nuclear engineer Arjun Makhijani, president and senior engineer of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. His new book, Carbon Free and Nuclear Free, a Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, published last fall, was a joint project between the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and Makhijani's organization.

"I set out to do a technical and economic feasibility study of whether it was possible to phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power at the same time," Makhijani said in an interview with BW in December 2007. What he discovered surprised him.

"Not only do I think it can be done, I think it can be done at reasonable cost and done fairly rapidly for such a massive change," he said. "In 30 to 50 years, I think we can completely transform our energy economy."

Makhijani believes that by using a distributed energy grid, a state could allow a steady and reliable energy supply from a combination of renewable sources such as hydro, wind, geothermal and solar. A diversified-energy source pool such as this, combined with energy-efficient technologies and building design would, as Makhijani puts it, "increase our renewable energy supply 20 to 30 times without sacrificing any reliability at all."

Such a plan borders on fantasy for the energy colonies of the Intermountain West, but nonetheless, Makhijani believes it would be better than developing nuclear energy, which he sees as a potentially harmful technology.

But that's just the sort of energy that Alternate Energy Holdings, a Virginia company formed late in 2006 and now based in Eagle, wants to bring to the Bruneau area. The firm is led by Don Gillispie, an entrepreneur with a background in the nuclear power industry.

In April 2006, AEHI announced it had signed an agreement to purchase 4,000 acres of land near the C.J. Strike Reservoir and Recreation Area from James Hilliard. In June, the company said it had secured $3.5 billion for the project, now called the Idaho Energy Complex, from an investment company better known for financing commercial real estate projects, including bed and breakfasts, than for nuclear power projects.

According to AEHI's Web site, the Bruneau reactor would feature a "dry design," meaning that it would require only thousands of gallons of water for cooling, rather than the millions of gallons other reactors use. "Furthermore, IEC will use the plant's excess heat from nuclear generation to produce biofuels like ethanol, thereby further reducing cooling requirements and giving local farmers a market for their crops and agricultural waste," the Web site reads.

AEHI says it has begun the three-year approval process through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and hopes the plant could begin generating power by late 2015.

From the beginning, declarations by AEHI have been difficult to nail down, including its announcement in December 2007 that it had secured some $150 million in promised venture capital from Silverleaf Capital, a venture capital group in Salt Lake City. Getting details about Silverleaf Capital is a challenge, especially based on their company's Web site. In an interview with the Idaho Statesman, one of the company's principals, Shane Baldwin, said his company began in December 2006 and focuses primarily on real estate development and alternative energy. The company's promise of the $150 million to Gillispie's firm, he said, was its first foray into nuclear energy.

But Dan Yurman, a blogger who obsessively tracks nuclear energy proposals, was befuddled by the lack of background information about Baldwin's firm, or any evidence of expertise or experience in the nuclear sector. "Skepticism is the only perspective that makes any sense, at least for now," Yurman wrote in a post in December.

Weatherby himself is befuddled by the AEHI proposal, but he's had plenty of run-ins with Gillispie and his firm.

That may be because his energy plan's language is a direct challenge to proposals like those pushed by Gillispie's company.

The county went through a series of public meetings on the plan in July. In one, Weatherby said, he had an intense encounter with Gillispie who, for obvious reasons, had issues with the proposed plan.

The Powers That Be

The pressure continued, this time from another quarter. In the fall, after making a presentation to a state committee about the energy plan, Weatherby got a message that someone from the state Department of Commerce was trying to get in touch with him. He spoke with John Ireland, he said, who had a series of "odd questions" about how he came up with the plan's language.

"It's kind of like somebody's poking you with a needle in the side," Weatherby said. "I said, 'You're trying to find something out, and you're not liking what I'm telling you.'"

Finally, Weatherby said, Ireland came out with it and told Weatherby, "It looks to me like you went to the Snake River Alliance and had them write this plan."

To Weatherby, who had spent months on the energy plan, it was a slap in the face.

"It pissed me off," Weatherby said. "I told him he was flat wrong." In an interview with BW, Ireland admitted making the comment, but said he had apologized to Weatherby.

The state's top-level paranoia about the Snake River Alliance, the anti-nuclear watchdog group, shouldn't be much of a surprise to Weatherby. Idaho's Republican leadership is very much behind nuclear power.

In a speech before the University Presidents Council, Gov. Otter said developing wind and solar energy is too expensive.

"I'm backing nuclear," Otter said, in a speech picked up by the Associated Press.

Furthermore, Otter has surrounded himself with outright boosters of nuclear power, including Paul Kjellander, his handpicked leader of the new state-level Office of Energy Resources. Kjellander had previously served as the chairman of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

In a speech to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce last week, Kjellander made it plain that nuclear power was his energy source of choice for an expanding state.

Wind energy, he said, was a "part-time" energy source.

"I'm pro-nuclear," Kjellander said. He believes, he said, in "the three N's," which he defines as "nuclear, natural gas or nothing."

In a sense, Weatherby's plan had called Idaho's bluff. In his typical libertarian fashion, Otter had pushed back on Democratic proposals to create a new layer of state bureaucracy on energy production. A state siting authority taking a statewide perspective on major new energy factories in Idaho has never caught favor with him.

Instead, Otter has said that state agencies were ready to advise and assist counties looking at such proposals. He has offered up the experience and expertise of the state Department of Environmental Quality to help counties with such proposals.

There are just two problems with that idea.

For starters, it's not immediately clear that the DEQ is equipped to address nuclear power plants in all their complexity. Although DEQ director Toni Hardesty told BW she has several nuclear engineers on staff, she also said their main expertise and directive has to do with waste management.

"If we have the expertise, we'd be glad to share," Hardesty said. As for the actual construction of a plant and the safety precautions necessary there—that's another question that Hardesty has deferred to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that reviews all nuclear power proposals.

"It's a division of responsibility," Hardesty said.

The other problem is that Otter has already signed into law a bill that essentially strips counties of authority over energy factory proposals such as the one now before Owyhee and another before Payette County.

In February 2007, the House interim Environment, Energy and Technology Committee drafted a bill that would help counties and cities ask for advice and counsel from state agencies regarding major energy production proposals.

All well and good. But the bill, which passed both the House and Senate on largely party-line votes, also had a poison pill for counties who had such proposals before them.

The bill set out a series of factors that counties were not allowed to look at when they considered major energy production proposals.

Under the law, the counties are not allowed to consider the potential need or use for the energy produced. Nor are they able to consider the financial characteristics of the energy purchasers. Last but not least, the bill—which Otter signed into law in July, about the same time that Weatherby's energy plan had become public—forbade counties from considering any alternative energy options when they were considering the new production sites.

For alternative energy proponents like the Snake River Alliance, the bill was a far cry from the sort of statewide production facility siting authority that would take a more comprehensive look at energy production proposals in Idaho.

"I've described it as a sort of 'siting lite' bill," said Ken Miller, a spokesman for the Snake River Alliance.

Nobody with any sense of political reality believes that counties will ultimately be usurped of their authority wholesale. Miller is among those. But the new law, combined with Idaho's inexperience as a state with new nuclear energy production facilities, makes for a volatile combination. Not only are counties lacking in the sort of expertise they might need to address major energy production facilities, but they might not necessarily find what they need in the DEQ.

Weatherby had a tough time doing so when he called the DEQ for advice about his energy plan, he said. For about a week, he said, he went back and forth with DEQ officials about nuclear power plants and ultimately felt less than satisfied.

"I talked to five different people," Weatherby said. "Nobody even knew what I was talking about."

The Other Nuke Plant

All of the above may not seem so grave when viewed in the context of the AEHI plan, which for now hasn't taken on a very serious form, other than the drumbeat of publicity about various hard-to-verify funding promises.

But when it comes to Payette County, the discussion is far more serious. In December 2007, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a corporation owned by billionaire Warren Buffett's investment group, stated that it had formed a nuclear energy corporation and was looking strongly at generating nuclear power from a site in western Idaho near the Oregon border. The company, MidAmerican Nuclear Energy, has already notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its intent to study the possibilities and perhaps submit a proposal to the federal agency.

The company's CEO, Bill Fehrman, told Reuters News Service it was "very early in the due diligence phase" but that it will be ready to decide whether to move forward to seek a combined operating license for a new reactor by the middle of 2008. The company went so far as to invite locals to a public meeting in Payette County to answer questions about the proposal. About 400 people showed, according to news reports, and were presented with no less a personage than Fehrman, who answered questions about the proposal. He may not have won the public's adoration, but few people had any doubt about the legitimacy of his company's intent or financial backing.

This latest plan has inspired a different sort of response. Idaho Families for the Safest Energy, a citizens group that started up in response to the two nuclear power proposals, has submitted a petition to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa that would make nuclear power plant approvals subject to a popular vote. To get the measure on the ballot in 2008, the group will need to collect about 46,000 signatures of registered voters before April 30. Even if the small grassroots effort were to succeed, such a measure would still face Constitutional review and possible challenge.

In the meantime, county commissioners in Payette County have begun weighing the enormity of a nuclear power plant in their back yard and are hunting for answers much like the rest of us would.

"Where are these people supposed to go?" said the Snake River Alliance's Miller. "You can Google things. But these are serious questions that a lot of people are asking." In the face of such significant proposals, Otter's declaration that the state's DEQ is ready to help the counties answer technical questions comes off as almost glib.

All of which might make Joe Weatherby seem a bit prescient. By spending almost nine months drafting an energy plan that his county now sees as policy and that addresses nuclear power squarely, Owyhee County might seem ahead of the game. But Weatherby is already feeling the pressure both from the state and from Gillispie's company about the work he put into the county energy policy.

He may also be in sync with public perception. In February of 2007, the Boise State Energy Policy Institute released the results of a survey stating that the single most important issue for Idaho's energy was the availability of renewable resources. On nuclear power, however, respondents were more split. About 42 percent were against building nuclear power facilities, and about 50 percent were for such plants when they would be used to produce energy for public consumption.

The conundrum Idaho now faces is whether to allow counties the full range of available power and authority over major energy facilities—and offer them definitive assistance when they need it—or to strip them of their power when they want to consider alternatives.

So far, Otter appears to have done both.