By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – Nothing like a brutal war in Ukraine to drive home the realities of the world’s dependence on oil. The devastation and suffering there has also pushed talk of nuclear power back to the forefront … for reasons bad and good.
The bad is encapsulated in reports from Chernobyl, site of a derelict nuclear plant in north Ukraine, where technicians are working around the clock at Russian gunpoint to prevent a repeat of the 1986 meltdown brought on by Soviet-era incompetence. It is further illustrated by Russian attacks this month on a working nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, where indiscriminate shelling nearly led to disaster.
On the plus side of the nuclear power debate, Wisconsin scientists and companies stand in a unique position to help provide solutions over time.
The nuclear plants in Ukraine are largely holdovers from obsolete technology. The future is focused on smaller, safer and reliable nuclear fission plants that are modular in design. It’s an approach that received a warm reception during last fall’s global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, and has been gathering momentum since.
Nuclear energy produces no atmospheric emissions. That’s why next-generation nuclear plants are part of carbon reduction plans released of late by the United States and other nations. During the fall climate change conference, for example, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm touted a partnership to install five next-generation, modular reactors in retired Romanian coal plants.
One leading U.S. nuclear research hub is located within the UW-Madison College of Engineering. It produces graduates who work in energy generation, but also in fields such as medicine, where radiation and radioisotopes are routinely used to diagnose and treat illness. Controlled radiation plays a role in sectors such as space exploration, food preservation, chemical production, and mechanical and structural safety checks.
Such nearby expertise may be a reason why Dairyland Power Cooperative in La Crosse, which ran the state’s first nuclear plant in Genoa, is pursuing a return to nuclear power. The utility is exploring technology developed by NuScale Power, a pioneer in the modular approach, to bring electricity to about 500,000 customers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Even if all goes well technically and financially, any Dairyland small nuclear reactor is years away. A project is at least feasible, however, because Wisconsin lifted its moratorium on building new plants in 2016.
Also getting renewed attention is nuclear fusion. Fission is all about splitting atoms to release energy. Fusion is the opposite.
Still years from being proven at a commercial scale, fusion combines atoms to create heavier ones while releasing energy. It has long been touted as safe, emissions-free and devoid of nuclear waste, one of the biggest complaints about fission. Fusion fuel sources are most often described as a combination of lithium and hydrogen.
Fusion was the topic of a March 17 White House summit during which two Wisconsin experts took part. Greg Piefer, founder and chief executive officer of SHINE Technologies in Janesville, and Stephanie Diem, a fusion expert on the UW-Madison faculty, were among two-dozen or so invited experts.
The Piefer-led team at SHINE held the world record for a while in 2019, sustaining a controlled fusion reaction that beat the previous mark by nearly 25 percent. The company ran a 132-hour test with more than 99 percent “up time,” yielding 46 trillion neutrons per second. It shows how researchers are inching closer to producing more energy than the fusion process consumes.
There is ample room for doubt, even as the White House convenes such experts. Nuclear fusion is one of those scientific Holy Grails that seems forever just out of reach, still viewed by some skeptics as the 21st century of alchemy.
Until now. Breakthroughs are taking place rapidly in federal laboratories, in Europe and in China. They’re also occurring in private companies such as SHINE, which is building a medical isotope plant in Janesville and which also designs and manufactures neutron generators. Such generators can be used in the fusion process.
Nuclear fission has its critics. Nuclear fusion has its skeptics. And yet, there is little doubt that electricity demands will continue to grow, fossil fuel consumption will likely decline, and alternatives such as solar and wind have logical limits. It’s no wonder that nuclear power, in all its forms, is getting a fresh look.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.