Rising demand for electricity is driving a search for alternative energy sources, and nuclear power should be one of those alternatives, a University of Utah professor said Wednesday.

Gary Sandquist, a U. professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, presented the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee with information on nuclear power and its benefits. Sandquist said demand for electricity will continue to rise, and energy solutions need to be considered.

"As a society, we need to be open to other sources," Sandquist said.

Insisting nuclear power is the cheapest form of energy, Sandquist said cities with nuclear power plants like them, and the plants are much safer than they were in the 1970s.

Wind and solar energy also are possibilities being considered, but the committee focused the discussion on nuclear power. Utah uses coal heavily for electricity, something Sandquist said he hopes the state will reduce.

Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, require enormous amounts of land area, and the use of such renewable resources may not be able to "take the energy load," Sandquist said.

Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Garfield, advocated nuclear power, saying it was crazy that it isn't more prevalent.

"With the cheaper energy, you can save a lot," he said.

Committee members also asked representatives from PacifiCorp and its parent company, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., to speak about the power issue.

Bill Fehrman, president of PacifiCorp Energy, said the company is evaluating and reviewing the nuclear power option. However, building and running a plant can be economically volatile.

"If we started today, it would be 2018 before we could bring it online," Fehrman said.

He added that a company has to wait two to four years before it knows whether a nuclear permit has been approved. Companies can put tens of millions of dollars into a program without the assurance of a return.

"It's not an easy, straightforward path to building a nuclear plant," he said.

Brent Gale, vice president of regulation and legislation for MidAmerican Energy Holdings, said the company tries to create cost-effective solutions for its customers. Although prices in the market are volatile, "states determine what is cost-effective," Gale said.

He also said there will be future upward pressures on rates and encouraged the committee to think about "diversifying the portfolio" of energy sources used in Utah.

And not all speakers at Wednesday's meeting advocated new nuclear power. Vanessa Pierce, executive director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, urged the committee to take the time needed to fully understand the issue before it makes a decision.

"We're not saying get rid of nuclear power," she said. "We need to take it seriously. We should exhaust every other resource."


E-mail: csmith@desnews.com