DES MOINES — Problems besetting nuclear reactors in earthquake-battered Japan are forming a cloud of uncertainty over plans in Iowa to construct a second nuclear power plant.

Legislative committees in the House and Senate are considering legislation that would help address hurdles that might impede MidAmerican Energy’s exploratory effort aimed at building a nuclear-powered facility in Iowa that company officials say would use a series of small modular reactors that represent new-generation technology. Iowa already has a nuclear-powered facility operating near Palo and a nuclear plant is located just across the Iowa border in Cordova, Ill., near the Quad-Cities.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said Monday he wants Iowa to take a “go-slow” approach to nuclear expansion as the events in Japan unfold, while Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, R- Osceola, said she believed the exploratory process should proceed.

“We started this process last year with legislation. We’re taking it to the next step this year,” Reynolds told reporters during a news conference. She said technology has changed since America faced a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, and she believes research should continue regarding the feasibility of nuclear-generated power in Iowa.

“I think it’s a different day. Technology is different. We’re looking at smaller facilities across the state of Iowa, so there’s a lot of opportunity there,” she said. “They don’t happen overnight. It’s a seven- to eight-year process in order to move toward nuclear production. I think we need to continue to look at all alternative fuels and that’s one of them.”

Bolkcom said he agrees with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who sits with the Democratic caucus, that there should be a temporary halt in building new U.S. nuclear power plants until the situation in Japan can be examined. He questioned whether state lawmakers should move ahead with enabling legislation for the proposed MidAmerican project that was granted funding last year for a feasibility study.

“Clearly what’s happened in Japan gives people pause for the safety and, frankly, the liability for who is going to pay when there are problems,” Bolkcom said.

“The United States’ nuclear industry has been run rather safely. On the other hand, when you do have a problem, it has the potential to be catastrophic problems.”

Sen. Swati Dandekar, D-Marion, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said a Senate subcommittee was slated to discuss the proposed measure Thursday and she expected a third meeting would take place before the bill advances to full committee. A similar bill is being considered by state representatives.

The company says the proposed Iowa law changes are needed to help the company attract potential investors and spread out costs to avoid a “rate shock” on utility bills once the proposed project became operational by 2020. The project is estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion.

MidAmerican Energy spokesman John Davis said the difference between what is happening at traditional nuclear-powered plants in Japan and the small modular reactors being envisioned for operation in Iowa epitomize the progress that has taken place in more than 40 years of technology advancements. The units that would be built in Iowa would be smaller, self-contained modules that are underground, under water and would not require active controls or human intervention to shut them down should there be a problem, he said.

Given the timing of the disaster in Japan, Davis said he was hopeful the discussion over Iowa’s future nuclear development could proceed without emotion or politics affecting the outcome.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, conceded the situation in Japan probably would heighten the interest in making sure Iowa’s legislation contains adequate safeguards. 

Dandekar said she has received emails and telephone calls after the nuclear energy bill since the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan from Iowans concerned that the proposed legislation provide adequate authority to the Iowa Utilities Board in regulating nuclear facilities in Iowa.

“We have to be practical and look at it from a big-picture point of view,” said Dandekar, who lives about 10 miles from the Duane Arnold Nuclear Plant in Palo. “We have to be cautious and do what’s right for our citizens in protecting them. We’ll make sure that all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed.”