Legislators consider lifting state’s nuclear power plant restrictions

A bill that would remove state restrictions on building new nuclear power plants is once again facing debate at the Capitol.

The bill would end what has been, in effect, a moratorium on building new nuclear plants. It would remove a restriction from a 1983 law that requires any new plants in Wisconsin to be economically advantageous to ratepayers.

That law also prevents the state’s Public Service Commission from approving a new plant unless there’s a storage facility that can store the high-level nuclear waste from all the plants in the state. Those facilities would be certain ones outside the U.S. or a federally-licensed facility, which currently doesn’t exist.

The bill, which is getting a public hearing in an Assembly committee today, is not a new proposal. Efforts to remove the restrictions have failed in past sessions, and Gov. Scott Walker backed lifting those restrictions during his first gubernatorial race in 2010.

Environmental groups are lining up against the bill, saying there are safer ways of diversifying the state’s energy portfolio than adding more nuclear energy to it — and that ratepayers’ costs will go up due to how expensive the plants are to build.

Wisconsin only has one operational power plant in Wisconsin right now: the Point Beach Nuclear Plant in Two Rivers. A nuclear plant in Genoa shut down in 1987, and the Kewaunee Power Station plant shut down in 2013 because it couldn’t find utilities willing to buy its power, as they opted for a less expensive option in natural gas.

Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said this week that the bill deserved some discussion and that “most members of the caucus are open” to it. The proposal, he said, might help the state meet new carbon emission standards under federal regulations, as nuclear plants don’t emit carbon dioxide.

In a co-sponsorship memo to legislators, the bill’s author, state Rep. Kevin Petersen, R-Waupaca, said his proposal would give the state another option as it seeks to diversify its energy portfolio under the feds’ new standards.

“It is time to lift the moratorium. … This bill simply reopens the door to a technology that has advanced well beyond what it was when our state closed that door 30+ years ago,” he said.

But Elizabeth Ward, the conservation programs coordinator at the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club, said there’s a “better option.”

“Solar and wind and other forms of clean energy are significantly cleaner than [nuclear and coal], and they don’t lead to carbon emissions or radioactive waste,” Ward said. “Why would you even play the game of picking between those two when there’s a much cleaner solution out there?”

Katie Nekola, the general counsel at Clean Wisconsin, said there’s plenty of room for Wisconsinites to conserve more energy. Nuclear plants, she said, will keep adding waste that “nobody can guarantee will be safe today or 100 years from now.”

“It’s a legacy that we leave to future generations. … We keep generating more and more of it, and it doesn’t seem smart,” she said.

Petersen said in the memo to lawmakers that if other energy sources can “cost effectively and suitably supply Wisconsin’s energy needs, then no nuclear plant would need to be built.”

And the Nuclear Energy Institute, a national organization backing the bill, said commercial nuclear plants have had “no radiation-related health effects linked to their operation” in the 55 years they’ve existed in the U.S.

NEI spokesman Tom Kauffman pointed to independent studies that show they “effectively protect the health and safety of the public, and the environment.”

Opponents have also raised concerns over the billions of dollars it costs to build a nuclear plant. Removing the requirement concerning ratepayers from state law would be “leaving ratepayers on the hook for a hugely expensive project,” Ward said. And she added the requirement over what to do with nuclear waste is also “common sense.”

“We think both of those make sense,” Ward said. “[The law] is not necessarily anti-nuclear. It just points out the two major concerns with nuclear.”

Kauffman, the NEI spokesman, responded to cost concerns by saying the state should have a broad range of energy sources when looking at its portfolio.

“In planning Wisconsin’s energy future, its leaders will need to consider many factors including emissions, reliability, supply diversity, jobs, taxes, the costs of energy sources, etc.,” Kauffman said. “When Wisconsin considers its energy future, it should be able to consider all options.”

Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter are the only groups registered against the bill so far. Groups supporting the bill include several unions, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, local energy companies and NextEra Energy Resources, which runs the Point Beach Nuclear Plant.

— By Polo Rocha