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Friday, Aug. 15, 2008

Nukes in Wisconsin Not Likely

Republicans distort nuclear power recommendations

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Gov. Jim Doyle is following John McCain’s lead into a nuclear future, the Republican Party of Wisconsin crowed last week. Nuclear supporters claimed that Doyle, who’s seeking to become a green governor, wants to end the 25-year-old moratorium on building nuclear power plants in Wisconsin.

“After years of opposition to nuclear energy it appears Gov. Jim Doyle became the first Democrat to abandon Barack Obama’s ‘no’ policy as Americans continue to struggle with high energy prices,” state Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus claimed in a press release. “Now willing to lift the nuclear moratorium, Doyle’s stance is more in line with Senator John McCain, who has called for 45 new nuclear power plants in the United States by 2030. We support Doyle’s willingness to follow McCain’s leadership as he listens to Wisconsinites in need of a solution to our energy crisis.”

“It’s good to see Senator McCain’s message of expanding the use of nuclear power is resonating in Wisconsin,” Republican Congressman Paul Ryan chimed in. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piled on with the headline: “Doyle favors lifting nuclear moratorium.”

The problem, though, is that this simply isn’t true. Doyle, a strong supporter of Obama, is not suddenly embracing McCain’s longtime love for nuclear power.

The governor supports a recommendation from his Global Warming Task Force, which would “modify Wisconsin’s current moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants to allow this option to be considered in the future,” the report states.

The key word is “modify.” Not “lift.” “It doesn’t repeal the moratorium,” said Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner. “It’s not a green light for nuclear plants.”

Changes Could Strengthen the Moratorium

In fact, the Task Force recommended placing new restrictions on nuclear plants. Three nuclear plants already operate in the state—in Kewaunee, Point Beach, and on the UW-Madison campus. All three were built before the 1983 moratorium placed conditions on the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Currently, before a new nuclear plant can be constructed, a federally licensed repository—such as Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas—must be available to take in all of Wisconsin’s nuclear waste. Right now, nuclear waste is kept on-site at Wisconsin’s individual facilities, since no federally licensed repository exists.

In addition, the state Public Service Commission (PSC) must find that a new nuclear plant must be “economically advantageous” to Wisconsin ratepayers. Those conditions could be modified if the recommendations from Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming are put into place.

The Task Force recommended that new nuclear plants could be considered if—and only if: Its recommended policies for conservation, efficiency and renewable energy are in place first The PSC finds that a new nuclear power plant is “safe, economic and in the public interest” The electricity is either generated by or sold to a Wisconsin utility, and the power is sold to electricity customers in the state.

Charlie Higley of Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board said that contrary to the Republican Party’s claims, these recommendations actually strengthen the current restrictions on nuclear power in Wisconsin in a number of ways. Yucca Mountain could have a federal license in three years, and that could be good enough to satisfy the moratorium restriction for Wisconsin, Higley argued, since the state doesn’t require that the facility be constructed and ready to take in nuclear waste. Higley said that under the new recommendations, a new plant would have to have some sort of safe, long-term plan to deal with its nuclear waste before it received a permit in Wisconsin.

Higley noted that nuclear power plants may have a less expensive fuel source than, say, coal or natural gas plants, but that nuclear plants are far more expensive to construct. That would make the “economic” bar difficult to clear, unless a proposed plant received huge subsidies from the federal government.

Interestingly, while McCain plans to put the country “on track” to build 45 new nuclear plants by 2030, he doesn’t say how that would be paid for. But his 2007 energy bill—which died in Congress—contained an estimated $3.7 billion in federal subsidies for nuclear power companies.

“Nuclear has never been the cheaper alternative,” Higley said. “I don’t know why politicians like to propose things that are going to cost their constituents money.”

Not Anytime Soon

Higley said that the nuclear recommendation was only a small piece of the Task Force’s proposals, and that other goals must be met before the nuclear option could even be considered.

“All of [the nuclear recommendations] could only take place if we invest in energy efficiency as recommended by the Task Force and if Wisconsin implements stronger requirements for renewable energy,” Higley said. Sensenbrenner, from Doyle’s office, said that’s the larger point that’s being missed.

“The Task Force is saying two main points,” Sensenbrenner said. “One is that there are two steps that you can take right now that are more effective, really positive steps. Those steps are energy efficiency and conservation, and then moving toward a renewable, homegrown energy portfolio.”

Not only that, but the recommendations are just that—recommendations. Some of the Task Force’s proposals require a change in statutes or administrative rules, so state agencies and the state Legislature would have to approve them.

Sensenbrenner said Doyle is considering how to move forward and would develop an “action plan” perhaps as early as this week. “There are many steps that will require some sort of approval, so it’s a question of how to package it and move it all for ward,” Sensenbrenner said.

Higley predicted that one huge energy bill that includes nuclear power would be introduced in the state Legislature next year. “It’s hard to stop a freight train,” Higley said. “The individual pieces might not make it but if they’re wrapped in one bill they all may make it.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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