• WisBusiness

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nuclear power must be part of nation's alternative energy future

By Tom Still
If you were surprised to learn President Obama supports building the first nuclear power plant in the United States in nearly three decades, you may not have been listening closely during his run for the White House.

"Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity," Obama said during his 2008 campaign. "It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option."

Of course, Candidate Obama said a lot of things that may or may not happen on President Obama's watch. That's politics. But he has repeatedly backed nuclear power as a way to ease American dependence on foreign oil and to curb use of other fossil fuels blamed for global warming.

Now, if only more members of Obama's party would come around to the same conclusion.

Obama will support a loan guarantee to build two Southern Co. reactors in Burke, Ga., where site preparations are under way but construction is still years off. The Southern Co. has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a construction and operating license for the plant, one of 13 such applications under NRC review. It will likely take two years before the first is approved.

Even with that lengthy horizon, federal money to guarantee loans must be budgeted now, and that's precisely what Obama wants to do. In his Jan. 27 State of the Union speech, Obama called for a "new generation of clean, nuclear plants," and the Georgia reactors would fit that mold.

Two of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors are located in Wisconsin -- but they will be the last unless the state lifts what amounts to a moratorium on building new plants.

Wisconsin's Three Mile Island-era moratorium no longer makes sense. If you believe global climate change is the single largest environmental threat to the planet, you should embrace energy sources that don't emit greenhouse gases. If you believe there will be millions of new plug-in hybrid vehicles, all getting recharged while idle, you should want power sources that can reliably handle the load without generating more carbon.

Solar and wind power will be a part of the answer, but those alternatives can't measure up to nuclear energy when it comes to steady and massive production of electricity. Today, those alternatives account for about 2 percent of electricity generation.

Language in Wisconsin's proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act could relax the state's ban on building nuclear generation. That same act also includes a controversial mandate that 25 percent of Wisconsin's energy come from renewable power sources by 2025 -- a goal that will be difficult to meet without more nuclear power.

The problem with the moratorium language is that it appears to defy the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the laws of physics. The bill decrees that any new nuclear plant built in Wisconsin must serve Wisconsin consumers only. That's not physically possible because of how electricity flows from a power plant through transmission lines. Electricity is dispatched regionally across the Midwest according to needs as well as high-voltage ebbs and flows across the power grid.

Supporters of Wisconsin's nuclear moratorium have moved from arguing that nuclear power isn't safe (coal kills thousands of people each year around the world, while the U.S. nuclear industry has yet to kill anyone) to insisting it's too costly. Since 2005, according to the Wisconsin Public Research Group, the projected cost of building a reactor has tripled. But other sources say the cost per kilowatt for nuclear energy is falling, which may explain why the NRC is reviewing so many applications to build reactors.

There's nothing to lose by ending Wisconsin's 26-year-old moratorium, and it should be done without strings that challenge the constitution and science. Safe, reliable nuclear power plants can be built today, and they can help reduce greenhouse gases while curbing reliance on carbon-based fuels.

Lifting the moratorium doesn't mean Wisconsin will be build a new plant tomorrow or even within this decade. But removing the ban could give the state's ambitious alternative energy goals a fighting chance of actually being met.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Comments: 5

At February 16, 2010 at 12:02 PM, Blogger xoff said...

No mention of the fact that the reason people object to changing the law is that there is still no safe, permanent way to dispose of high-level radioactive waste, which remains deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. That's the real issue.

Current law says there must be a federal repository for the waste before a new reactor can be built in Wisconsin. This bill would eliminate that requirement and open us up to long-term storage of waste on-site at the reactors, which is neither safe nor a permanent solution.

After 50 years of producing the stuff, there's still no way to dispose of it. Until there is, it makes no sense to build more reactors to produce more waste.

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