By Tom Still

MADISON – The Legislature will probably miss yet another chance to repeal the state’s antiquated moratorium on building emissions-free nuclear power plants in Wisconsin, even though most of the lawmakers who will vote to keep the 25-year-old ban profess to fear the long-term effects of global climate change.

Just as a number of Republican legislators have recanted their “flat world” denials of the scientific evidence about greenhouse gases and climate change, it’s time for Democrats to rethink their iconic devotion to the anti-nuke rhetoric of the 1980s. Let’s compare the risks and open Wisconsin to the possibility of clean, safe and ultimately affordable nuclear power.

The Assembly is advancing a bill that would allow the state Public Service Commission to again consider plans to build nuclear power plants. The bill would repeal a 1983 law that outlaws the construction of such plants unless they are shown to save the ratepayers money and a federal repository for nuclear waste is operating. The law, which was enacted after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in Pennsylvania, has essentially acted as a ban.

Opponents to lifting the ban say Wisconsin should conserve more energy. Fair enough. They also praise the potential of biofuels and other alternative energy technologies. Right again. But conservation and “green” energy alone won’t do the trick, especially when some of that green energy produces nearly as much carbon dioxide gas as fossil fuels.

Opening the option to build a next-generation nuclear plant in Wisconsin, which already gets 20 percent of its electric power from two existing nuclear plants, should be part of the state’s energy portfolio. In fact, it probably makes more sense to ban construction of new coal-fired plants than nuclear generators. Consider:

-    Our annual national consumption of 1.1 billion tons of coal is a daily killer. In the United States alone, where mine safety records are actually improving, more than 680 coal miners have died in accidents since 1990. China is averaging about 4,000 coal mining deaths per year as it hacks ton after ton of coal out of the Earth’s crust to feed its ravenous energy appetite.

-    Rail accidents while transporting coal take hundreds more lives each year, and there is significant environmental damage to the water, land and wildlife around most mines. Scientists agree thousands of premature deaths in the United States alone each year are linked to burning coal, and that a dangerous build-up of greenhouse gases is a byproduct of burning coal and other fossil fuels.

-    A typical coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor – straight into the air, not into a guarded and enclosed storage site.

Leaving aside the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, where poor technology and even worse Communist-era bungling killed hundreds of people more than 20 years ago, there simply hasn’t been a nuclear power plant accident that can match what happens routinely in the international coal industry. The Three Mile Island accident didn’t cost a single life in Pennsylvania, despite the feverish attempt of anti-nuclear advocates to prove otherwise.

The world is quietly but steadily turning back to nuclear power for answers. There is a growing recognition that the risks and costs associated with nuclear power are far more manageable and economically defensible than most alternatives, with wind energy being a noteworthy exception.

If you’re worried about global climate change, and you should be, nuclear power is part of the long-term solution. Nuclear power plants release no noxious gases or lung-damaging dust into the air. They are reliable, with an enviable post-Three Mile Island safety record in this country and elsewhere. They are already widely used, with more than 100 nuclear generating plants in the United States alone. The U.S. Navy has racked up another 5,500 reactor years of accident-free experience.

In France, Japan and elsewhere, the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power far exceeds America’s 20 percent. And they fit neatly into the existing grid of transmission lines.

Some environmentalists are urging their colleagues to rethink their blanket opposition to nuclear energy – mainly because the risks associated with global climate change are infinitely higher. Those enviros recognize that radiation containment, waste disposal and nuclear proliferation are political problems, not unsolvable scientific issues.

It will come too late for the Legislature’s current session, but a March 26 forum sponsored by the Wisconsin Public Utility Institute at UW-Madison will feature presentations on the latest reactor designs, waste storage technologies, the economics of nuclear power and more.

The risks associated with nuclear power should not be minimized – but they are manageable in ways the risks associated with climate change are not. At some point, society must move beyond the fears of the past and use all reasonable tools to attack climate change, the No. 1 environmental threat of the 21st century.

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