It isn’t often that Republicans and scientists land on the same side of an issue these days.
In Wisconsin, the two groups have clashed on such issues as banning fetal tissue research, cutting scientists from the Department of Natural Resources and reducing state funds for higher education. But the party known for anti-intellectualism and climate change denial is joining forces with scientists to lift a decades-old moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants in Wisconsin.
It’s a move that local energy experts say will position the state to meet the carbon emissions reduction guidelines set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. However, some environmentalists worry about dangerous nuclear waste and say that policymakers should focus efforts on renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Under current law, state regulators are barred from approving new nuclear power plants unless there is a federal facility to store nuclear waste and the new plant is not a financial burden for ratepayers. No such federal facility exists. A proposal from Rep. Kevin Petersen (R-Waupaca) removing those provisions made it through committee with bipartisan support last month and passed in the Assembly on Jan. 12.
Now, it moves on to the Senate. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to an Isthmus request for comment on the status of the bill. Gov. Scott Walker has said he supports lifting the moratorium.
The bill provides an “interesting opportunity” for bipartisan action, says Paul Wilson, a UW-Madison professor of nuclear engineering and interim chair of the Nelson Institute’s Energy Analysis and Policy certificate program. “There are a lot of different interests that kind of coalesce around nuclear energy,” he says.
The technology offers a stable, reliable source of electricity, making nuclear power a strong candidate for providing “base load” energy, which is the minimum amount of power needed to satisfy consumer demand. That fits into the business-friendly platform favored by many Republicans, and nuclear energy’s capability to reduce carbon emissions aligns with Democrats’ environmental interests.
Several Wisconsin energy utility companies support the legislation, although none have plans to build nuclear power plants anytime soon.
Alliant Energy spokesman Scott Reigstad says the company is focusing on transitioning its energy generation mix away from large, coal-fired plants and ramping up natural gas generation, which produces 50% to 60% less carbon. Alliant also owns wind farms and hydroelectric dams and has seen growth in customer-owned renewables, like solar panels.
Madison Gas and Electric recently launched a renewable energy initiative, Energy 2030, which aims to supply 30% of its retail energy sales from renewable sources by 2030. The plan makes no mention of nuclear power, says Dana Brueck, MGE spokeswoman.
The bill also places nuclear power on the state’s list of energy priorities, ranking it the fourth most desirable energy source, below “combustible renewable energy,” but above nonrenewable combustible energy resources. To Wilson, that’s the most significant part — opening the door to discussing nuclear as an option for clean energy production in the future.
“The biggest issue is, if we continue to disallow nuclear energy in Wisconsin, the number one consequence is that we will burn more fossil fuels,” Wilson says. “That may not be the consequence people are after, but it is the consequence in the real world.”
Environmental groups agree on the need to cut carbon emissions. But many say renewable energy sources like wind and solar offer a cheaper option for generating power.
“If we want to reduce customers’ bills, energy efficiency is the answer,” says Mitch Brey, organizer for renewable energy advocacy group RePower Madison. He says that instead of exploring nuclear options, the Legislature should focus on reducing the state’s dependency on coal. Wisconsin is one of the biggest coal consumers in the nation — more than 60% of the net electricity generation came from burning the fossil fuel in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Renewable energy is also safer than nuclear power, say environmentalists, who fear the prospect of nuclear catastrophes like those that occurred at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
“There’s a saying that when you have a solar spill, it’s called a sunny day,” says Elizabeth Ward, a program coordinator with the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter.
Ward says nuclear power plants are unlikely to help Wisconsin meet the EPA’s Clean Power Plan goals by the 2030 deadline. Facilities are costly and time-consuming to construct, and utility companies have no plans to build in the near future.
“There’s no way we could see a proposal, approval and construction of a nuclear power plant by that time,” she says.
Ward also warns of a possible “unintended consequence” of the legislation. She believes if the moratorium is lifted, it would “strongly signal” to the U.S. Department of Energy that Wisconsin is open to storing nuclear waste. President Barack Obama halted plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the DOE has also identified Wisconsin’s Wolf River Batholith as a possible site for a repository.
“That does not bode well,” Ward says.
Despite concerns, nuclear power experts maintain that the power source is safe — or rather, that the risks are manageable.
Meier conducts research using simulated models to predict the impact nuclear power plants would have on carbon dioxide emission levels. He says there are three ways to reduce pollution: reduce energy use, capture emissions or change fuel sources.
Energy conservation efforts are cost-effective, but the impact is limited, Meier says. There are capture and sequestration methods, but the current potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is “effectively zero,” he continues. That leaves the third option.
“Wisconsin’s future [carbon dioxide] emissions are going to be higher without new nuclear power plants,” Meier says. “At a minimum, Wisconsin as a state needs to keep its options open. Now is the time to start having that conversation.”
Wisconsin is among the first states to contemplate expanding nuclear energy, but other states could soon follow suit, says Kristy Hartman, a program principal with the National Conference for State Legislatures who studies nuclear energy policy.
“We are seeing a growing interest in nuclear legislation,” she says.
Including Wisconsin, there are 13 states with conditional restrictions in place on the construction of nuclear power plants. Minnesota has an outright ban. But some states, like Washington, are exploring the potential of small modular reactors — facilities that produce about one-third of the energy of a traditional 1,000-megawatt power plant. Others, like Virginia, are expanding education and training for workers in the nuclear industry.
Hartman says the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a driving force behind the new push to explore nuclear energy. Nuclear power advocates also touted the technology’s potential to combat climate change at the recent COP21 climate conference in Paris.
A number of states, particularly in the Northeastern part of the U.S., have faced or are facing nuclear power plant closures, leaving them in an “in-between” situation as they seek to maintain energy production levels, Hartman says. These same states are also looking at how to comply with the EPA’s new emissions goals — finding that nuclear might be their best option for clean energy.
Says Hartman: “There’s certainly an opportunity for nuclear to come into play.”