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New tech brings attention to nuclear energy, but barriers to expansion remain

New technologies are bringing more attention to nuclear energy generation, though significant barriers to its expansion still remain, according to a panel of Wisconsin energy industry experts.

Wisconsin currently has one operational nuclear power plant, the Point Beach Nuclear Generating Station. It made up about 16 percent of the state’s net generation in 2016.

Panelists spoke at yesterday’s WisPolitics.com luncheon held in Madison, discussing various methods of nuclear energy generation that don’t have some of the drawbacks traditionally associated with nuclear power.

“There’s a lot of interest in smaller nuclear reactor technology that we can deploy at a smaller scale to better match the growth and fluctuations in demand regionally and nationally,” said Paul Wilson, a top nuclear engineering professor at UW-Madison. “That has led to massive interest in the public and private sector.”

Wilson says research interest is growing at UW-Madison for molten salt reactors, which can be easier to design facilities around because they operate at high temperatures without needing the extreme pressure present in other reactors.

“This is one of the new technologies -- what we call ‘generation four’ technologies -- that offer some promise in a number of different aspects with the viability of nuclear energy,” he said.

He added many other universities are getting onboard with various studies into improving nuclear generation.

Mike Huebsch, a member of the state’s Public Service Commission and former legislator who pushed pro-nuclear power legislation, notes France -- which generates 75 percent of its energy from nuclear sources -- is relying more now on smaller modular reactors. These can provide lower capital risk because of the smaller unit size.

“Small modular reactors, or somehow figuring out a way to commercialize the molten salt reactors -- both those I think are the future of nuclear,” Huebsch said.

Wilson notes that nuclear energy investment has traditionally come from the public sector, but private interest has been piqued by some of these new developments.

“There’s a massive interest, a growing interest in private sector investment with something like 50 different startup companies all trying different angles to get into this game,” Wilson said.

Despite this optimism surrounding the future of nuclear energy, many large hurdles stand in the way of its expansion, panelists noted.

Greg Levesque, director of environmental and local relations at American Transmission Co., says regulations and timelines are some of the biggest roadblocks to new nuclear plants going up. Levesque noted that he was speaking purely from his own experience in the energy field, since ATC is publicly neutral on energy sources.

He says it takes a decade or several to develop a nuclear power plant, and the issue of cost vs. safety can further complicate that figure.

“We all know that you can make something much safer, but it just costs money,” he said. “To wrap your arms around the cost for nuclear power plants, we’re talking about billions… The best estimate right now is $2 to $5 billion to build a plant in the United States.”

Other barriers Levesque pointed to include: the comparatively low price of natural gas; the proliferation of renewables putting pressure on the generation mix; and public perception of nuclear energy as unsafe.

Although nuclear has the best safety record of any energy source in the country, incidents like the Three Mile Island accident and the Fukushima disaster weigh heavily on the public’s mind, Levesque said.

Huebsch, who is part of the national Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, says the biggest concern with nuclear generation is what to do with the spent fuel, but notes molten salt reactors can help with that. By breaking up spent nuclear rods and immersing them in the molten salt, the radioactivity of the waste is drastically reduced, Huebsch said.

He also noted misinformation as a barrier to nuclear energy expansion.

“It’s very easy to demagogue, it’s very easy to frighten with nuclear, and it’s much more difficult to get the real story out… The real story is completely opposite of everything we’ve heard about the dangers of nuclear power,” he said.

Huebsch says in 20 years, the Midwest region could see a new nuclear power plant, while Wilson says it could be “maybe 30 years.”

Levesque says it could happen in the next two decades, but noted that the Kewaunee Power Station -- taken offline about five years ago -- is being decommissioned over decades. He says it could be recommissioned.

“That possibility remains,” he said. “But again, if you had to ask me for the absolute key, it’s the [natural] gas prices. If the gas prices remain low, it’s going to be really hard to see any nuclear development.”

Watch the WisEye video of the luncheon: http://www.wiseye.org/Video-Archive/Event-Detail/evhdid/12131

--By Alex Moe


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