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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Battle Looms Over Relaxing Nuclear Regulations

The Global Warming Task Force recommends weakening the state’s rules

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As a quiet but concerted effort is under way to weaken state laws regulating nuclear power plant construction in Wisconsin, a battle is brewing.

State utilities and the nuclear industry have zeroed in on Wisconsin as a key, symbolic target in their national campaign to reopen the door to expansion. On the other side, a coalition of 14 public interest and environmental groups has formed in opposition to any new reactors, and in support of a 100% renewable energy policy for the state.

The debate is more nuanced than pro-nukes versus no-nukes. But at stake is whether Wisconsin will ease the restrictions on new reactors and, if it does, whether the state would actually allow more reactors to be built.

Nuclear Rules Are One Part of a Larger Package

Legislation is being drafted for introduction in the Legislature in the fall, based on a package of recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming. That task force included consumer and environmental groups as well as utility representatives, and all agreed that task force members would support the entire package, which contains many solid recommendations to reduce Wisconsin’s carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. But it also relaxes the rules on nuclear plants.

So a number of traditionally anti-nuclear groups, who still oppose expanding nuclear power, will find themselves conflicted—supporting the task force package that relaxes the rules, while working as part of a coalition that wants Wisconsin to be both carbon free and nuclear free.

Opponents of the nuclear changes will face a formidable challenge if they attempt to separate that recommendation from the rest of the package.

For a quarter century, Wisconsin has had a sensible law in place that has prevented the construction of new nuclear power reactors in the state.

It is commonly referred to as a nuclear moratorium. In fact, it does not forbid construction of new plants, but sets two requirements that must be met to win approval of the Public Service Commission (PSC):

1. That a federally licensed facility be available at which to dispose of the dangerous high-level radioactive waste that the plant produces.

2. That the PSC determine that the plant facility is economically advantageous to the people of the state.

The law has acted as a de facto moratorium because the industry has not been able to meet either of the requirements. Now, instead of meeting these two requirements, the nuclear industry wants to relax the rules, and eliminate the condition that there be a federal disposal site.

PR vs. Reality

Despite the industry’s heavy lobbying and PR efforts, nuclear advocates’ claims aren’t supported by reality.

The nuclear industry sees an opening by offering itself as a solution to climate change problems, claiming it is “clean.” But there are significant carbon emissions at every step of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to decommissioning old plants.

Safety is an ever-present issue for nuclear reactors. Wisconsin has not suffered a major accident. But only five “red findings”—the highest safety failure warnings in the industry—have ever been issued by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and three of the five went to Wisconsin’s Point Beach plant, near Two Rivers.

After more than 50 years of producing highly radioactive waste, there is still no safe way to dispose of it permanently. Some of the byproducts of generating nuclear power are so dangerous to human health and the environment that the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules requiring a disposal site be able to protect the public from radiation released by the waste for up to one million years.

A million years. To put that into some perspective, 15,000 years ago Wisconsin was covered by glaciers.

Because there is no federally approved site for nuclear waste, the three commercial reactors in Wisconsin have been accumulating three decades’ worth of waste in temporary storage facilities next to the reactors at Point Beach and Kewaunee, near Lake Michigan.

To build more reactors to produce more dangerous waste while we have no safe means of disposal is beyond irresponsible. It is unconscionable.

Then there’s cost. It doesn’t make economic sense to build new nuclear plants, which is why the nuclear industry is asking Congress for $50 billion in subsidies in the form of loan guarantees. Taxpayers already heavily subsidize nuclear power, and in the event of a major accident, taxpayers will foot most of the bill.

Nuclear power makes no more sense to day than it did when the nuclear moratorium was passed in 1984. Wisconsin must address the climate crisis, but renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies are faster, cheaper, safer and cleaner strategies for reducing greenhouse emissions than nuclear power. The choice between coal and nuclear power is a false one. Wisconsin can be both carbon free and nuclear free. That should be our goal.

Bill Christofferson, of Milwaukee, is co-chair of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, a statewide coalition of 165 organizations working for social change. For more information, visit www.wnpj.org or www.carbonfreenuclearfree.org.