Repeal nuclear moratorium — but don’t expect new power plants in Wisconsin

It’s hard to find a more knowledgeable advocate of nuclear energy than Michael Corradini, a professor of engineering physics at the UW–Madison, a past president of the American Nuclear Society, and a longtime advisor to governments at home and abroad.

But if you ask Corradini whether a bill lifting a 1983 moratorium on building nuclear plants in Wisconsin will make a tangible difference any time soon, his answer is a starkly practical “no.”

The reasons for his pessimism reflect the reality of the costs of building such a plant in a state where incentives to do so are virtually non-existent. Barriers include the low global cost of oil and natural gas, decades of planning and approval time, continued opposition by most environmental groups, and a state regulatory structure that doesn’t allow owners of a nuclear plant to recover costs in any reasonable amount of time.

Toss in the fact that energy demand in Wisconsin is relatively stagnant – the result of conservation efficiencies as well as economic trends — and the prospects for a “next-generation” nuclear power plant popping up in the Badger state are dimmer than a candle in a coal mine.

Speaking of coal, the slow but steady move away from coal as a power source for generating electricity in Wisconsin and nationwide is among reasons why the state Assembly recently passed a bill lifting the decades-old nuclear power plant moratorium.

Even those who deny the reality of global climate change know coal is among the dirtiest energy generation sources on the planet. It produces greenhouse gases, particulates, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and more when it’s burned, especially in the massive quantities needed to power an electricity plant.

Wisconsin utilities are trying to replace coal plants over time (federal regulations leave little long-term choice) with a portfolio that primarily features natural gas, wind, and solar power sources, along with electrical power transmitted from other states.

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Corradini and others were a part of a Jan. 20 Wisconsin Cleantech Network panel that explored how Wisconsin is weaning itself from the coal habit, albeit slowly in some parts of the state, by embracing a mix of solutions. The Cleantech Network is produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council and its partners.

While there was some disagreement over how Wisconsin’s energy portfolio may look 10 or even 20 years from now, there was consensus around some trends:

  • Wisconsin gets about 62% of its electricity from coal-fired plants today, but that percentage is certain to decline over time as older plants are phased out and replaced with new sources and technology.
  • Some utility companies are adopting wind and solar power more quickly than others as they strive to stay a step ahead of current regulations, not to mention those they may face if President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and international standards take hold. Costs are falling for wind and solar, although low oil and gas costs are slowing adoption in some cases.
  • Breakthroughs in energy storage technologies can help smooth out the bumps in intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar. Mechanical, thermal, compressed air, and other technologies can make it possible to efficiently store electricity produced when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.
  • Natural gas is cheap today but it might not always be so, given the multiple uses of natural gas, including industrial, residential, commercial, chemical, and transportation. The estimated reserves are immense, but that doesn’t guarantee immunity from price spikes.
  • Transmission lines will help import power from the West, especially wind power from Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. That is often a less costly option to building new plants in Wisconsin.
  • Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gas, a major advantage, but safe waste storage remains a stumbling block. Still, the nation’s fleet of 100 nuclear reactors produces about 19% of U.S. electricity. Five U.S. plants are being built and another 60 are under construction in 15 nations. As Obama noted during his 2008 campaign: “It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.”

Repeal the state moratorium on building nuclear plants? Sure, why not. It’s an artifact of the Three-Mile Island era. Over time, however, Wisconsin’s energy portfolio is more likely to diversify as a result of many new technologies, regulatory pressures, price sensitivities, and consumer demand.

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