Commentary

New nukes? No thanks

Utilities have a new nuclear power plan for Wisconsin

May 31, 2022 6:00 am
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More than 50 years since the last Wisconsin nuclear power reactor began operation, is there new nuclear power in the state’s future? 

Two utilities serving Wisconsin customers are exploring that possibility, hoping that new technology and smaller reactors will overcome the problems that have plagued the industry since its inception. It sounds like pie in the sky.

Dairyland Power Cooperative in LaCrosse and Xcel Energies, operating as Northern States Power in Wisconsin, have engaged NuScale, an Oregon firm, to evaluate the potential of using the small-scale reactors. NuScale is not a disinterested party; it developed the modular reactors and wants to sell them.

The Wisconsin Technology Council sponsored a luncheon last week, with a panel loaded with two utility executives and a nuclear engineer, but no skeptics or critics. The Tech Council appears to be in the tank for new nuclear plants.

But there are plenty of critics.

“Too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain. That, in a nutshell, describes NuScale’s planned small modular reactor (SMR) project, which has been in development since 2001 and will not begin commercial operations before 2029, if ever,” according to a report from  the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. 

Once touted as producing electricity too cheap to meter, nuclear power now has become too expensive to produce. Safety concerns aside, economics are the primary reason almost no new nuclear reactors have begun operating in the U.S. in decades, as other energy sources have become less expensive. 

Proponents present nuclear power as a way to fight climate change. At the Tech Council luncheon, industry presented nuclear power as part of a “decarbonized future.”  But nuclear power is neither clean nor green. As Dr Al Gedicks, emeritus professor at UW–La Crosse, puts it: ”Nuclear power is not carbon-free electricity. At each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining, milling, enrichment to construction, decommissioning and waste storage, nuclear power uses fossil fuels and contributes greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global climate change. Compared to renewable energy, nuclear power releases four to five times the CO2 per unit of energy produced.” 

The modular reactors “could be linked together like Legos,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, although each of the “Legos” would be seven stories tall and inside a containment vessel 76 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter.

Then there is the issue of nuclear waste, one the industry likes to ignore or treat as inconsequential. In 1983 Wisconsin enacted a law often incorrectly described as a nuclear plant moratorium.  It did not ban new reactors, but required that they make economic sense and that there be a permanent facility to dispose of their nuclear waste.  Unable to meet either of those requirements, the state simply repealed the law in 2016.

Nuclear reactors have been generating high level radioactive waste since 1957, with no safe, permanent way to dispose of it and store it anywhere in the world.  Instead, it has accumulated at the reactor sites. In Wisconsin, it is stored in dry casks at two closed reactors: the Kewaunee plant on Lake Michigan, and Dairyland’s Genoa plant on the Mississippi River.  At Point Beach, the only plant still operating in the state, also on Lake Michigan, some used nuclear fuel rods are stored in dry casks, and others in water, like swimming pools.  

Some of the waste is so deadly, and decays so slowly, that it must be kept out of the environment for 250,000 years.  To put that in perspective, 10,000 years ago Wisconsin was covered by glaciers. 

Are the dry casks safe, if not for 250,000 years, for the foreseeable future?  Nuclear plants of necessity are located on large bodies of water; one at Prairie Island, Minnesota operated by Xcel is in a flood plain. Jeff Bryan, a former nuclear science professor at  UW-La Crosse, said in a newspaper interview the effect of the radioactive waste, stored between Highway 35 and the Mississippi, should be minimal on local residents of Genoa. He said someone living a quarter mile from the storage pad will receive a yearly dose of radiation roughly equivalent to eating five bananas. That’s if all goes well, of course.

Finally, there is this classic disclaimer at the end of a NuScale news release, which shows how much uncertainty there is about the firm’s claims and plans:

 “This release may contain “forward-looking statements… Forward-looking statements may be identified by the use of words such as “estimate,” “plan,” “project,” “forecast,” “intend,” “will,” “expect,” “anticipate,” “believe,” “seek,” “target” or other similar expressions that predict or indicate future events or trends or that are not statements of historical facts. These forward-looking statements are inherently subject to risks, uncertainties and assumptions. Actual results may differ materially as a result of a number of factors. Caution must be exercised in relying on these and other forward-looking statements. Due to known and unknown risks, NuScale’s results may differ materially from its expectations and projections . . .. Accordingly, undue reliance should not be placed upon the forward-looking statements.”

In other words, don’t count on anything the nuclear industry tells you.  That has always been a good rule of thumb.  Buyer beware!

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Bill Christofferson
Bill Christofferson

Bill Christofferson is a former journalist and political consultant, and current peace activist, who lives in Milwaukee.

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