Utility survey sized up nuke plant opposition

Residents of Fremont County, Iowa, are pretty accepting of having a nuclear power plant in their backyard, so to speak. The folks in Woodbury County (Sioux City) not so much.

Those findings – buried between the transmission line and railroad access analysis of potential MidAmerican Energy nuclear power plant sites – are the result of a $44,000 public perception study sizing up how "accepting" residents of the six "finalist" communities would be to having a nuke plant built near them.

The survey conducted in November 2010 by Des Moines public relations firm Flynn Wright found the folks in Woodbury County would not be happy about the prospects of a nuclear plant nearby. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, residents in the two "finalist" sites – Muscatine and Fremont counties – were found to be much more "accepting" of a nuclear plant being built nearby.

The survey details were among more than two dozen documents filed by the utility Tuesday (6/4) with the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) when MidAmerican decided to pull the plug on its three-year, $15-million study. The state legislature gave MidAmerican permission to charge customers $15 million over three years to fund the feasibility study.

The utility ended the study early – four months before the surcharge on electric rates was to expire – and it announced it would refund nearly $9 million of the $14.2 million collected so far from customers.

The $5.4 million spent on the feasibility study will be the subject of upcoming hearings before the IUB to determine if the expenditures were prudent and should be paid by customers.

MidAmerican in 2011 initially wanted to keep details of its study expenses confidential, citing concerns disclosure would harm its competitive position. However, after bettendorf.com. asked the IUB to deny the confidentiality request, MidAmerican released the information.

The company at the time declined to provide any additional information on how the assessment of public perceptions was done, what questions were part of the assessment or how many Iowans were surveyed.

"When that 2013 proceeding takes place, MidAmerican will be required to demonstrate the reasonableness and prudence of the costs it has incurred," the utility spokeswoman said in 2011. "MidAmerican has not completed its analysis, and such analysis is not of public record."

In addition to the perception survey work, the utility paid $4,052 to public relations firm Wixsted Pope Nora Thompson and Associates (WPNT) of West Des Moines, and $4,800 to the Philadelphia-based legal firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius LLP.

WPNT specializes in training business executives to communicate with the media on a variety of issues including nuclear power. Morgan, Lewis and Bockius is 1,300-member global law firm that includes a Washington office specializing in nuclear power plant laws and regulations.

According to the documents filed by MidAmerican yesterday (6/4), Flynn Wright used telephone polling to talk with at least 100 people in each of the six locations being considered for the nuclear plant project.

Based on the responses, Flynn Wright developed relative rankings for each site covering five areas: voter support for a nuclear generation project; perception of nuclear generation as safe source of energy; perception of nuclear generation as clean source of energy; acceptance of a nuclear generation facility as a preferred energy project (compared to biofuels and coal fueled); and support for increased investments in nuclear generation projects.

MidAmerican officials took the Flynn Wright assessment, applied a weighted formula (5 points for very good to 1 point for very poor) and came up with a ranking of sites on "community acceptance."

Both Fremont and Pottawattamie counties ranked at the top (5) of the community acceptance scale by MidAmerican, while Muscatine County received a four ranking and Woodbury County a poor (2) ranking.

The Muscatine County site was the top choice for locating a potential nuclear plant based on all the site analysis conducted by Sargent & Lundy while the Fremont County site was second in the overall site rankings.

The utility also had Flynn Wright assess the potential to use "public education efforts through the local media" to improve community acceptance of such a project. The public relations firm assessed Pottawattamie, Fremont and Muscatine counties as "good" for such "public education" efforts, while Woodbury, Jasper and Louisa got "average" media relations scores.

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