The opponents of nuclear energy in the United States were almost giddy earlier this year when President Obama slashed the budget for a proposed waste storage site in Nevada. Surely, they thought, the inevitable demise of the Yucca Mountain project would end silly talk of splitting more atoms to produce power.
They were wrong. While Obama is no fan of the Nevada waste site, and he’s certainly not foolish enough to battle Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his home state, he understands the need to maintain – and even expand – America’s fleet of commercial nuclear reactors.
“Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity,” Obama said during his 2008 campaign. “It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option…”
Some of the money shifted from Yucca Mountain has gone toward “next generation” nuclear energy research through the U.S. Department of Energy, which last month awarded 71 grants to U.S. universities – including 10 to the UW-Madison. The goal is to design a better nuclear plant, solve waste storage problems (perhaps through reactors that burn their own waste) and to keep dangerous materials out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations.
“As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work towards energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in announcing $44 million in grants. A day later, Chu unveiled a $2.9 million program to fund scholarships and fellowships for nuclear science and engineering students at U.S. universities and colleges. Chu said a new generation of nuclear scientists and engineers are needed for a growing industry.
This doesn’t sound like an anti-nuke administration. In fact, it is cautiously bullish on expanding the use of nuclear energy and has singled out leading research programs such as UW-Madison to help meet that goal.
So, why does the state of Wisconsin cling to its outdated moratorium on building new generation plants?
Increasingly, the reasons for maintaining Wisconsin’s Three Mile Island-era moratorium don’t make sense. If you believe global climate change is the single largest environmental threat to the planet, you should embrace energy sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases. If you believe there will be millions of new plug-in hybrid vehicles, all getting recharged while idle, you should want power sources that can reliably handle the load without generating more carbon.
Of course, solar and wind power will be a part of the answer, but those alternatives can’t measure up to nuclear energy when it comes to steady and massive production of electricity. Today, those alternatives account for about 2 percent of electricity generation.
“Nuclear is the only large baseload source of energy that is not a fossil fuel, and the Obama administration has wisely decided to invest in nuclear along with other non-carbon sources,” said Michael Corradini, who chairs the UW-Madison Department of Engineering Physics. Baseload sources such as nuclear run around the clock, while solar and wind operate intermittently.
Supporters of Wisconsin’s nuclear moratorium have moved from arguing that nuclear power isn’t safe (coal kills thousands of people each year around the world, while the U.S. nuclear industry has yet to kill anyone) to insisting it’s too costly. Since 2005, according to the Wisconsin Public Research Group, the projected cost of building a reactor has tripled. But other sources say the cost per kilowatt for nuclear energy is falling, which may explain why 17 applications are pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build 26 more reactors.
There are 104 commercial reactors in the United States today, producing about 20 percent of the nation’s power. There are two reactors in Wisconsin, where the percentage of electricity coming from nukes is also about 20 percent.
There’s nothing to lose by ending Wisconsin’s 25-year-old moratorium. Federal investment is spurring work aimed at building safe, reliable nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy can be a major contributor to reducing greenhouse gases and curbing reliance on carbon-based fuels. And some of the leading researchers in the United States, if not the world, are right here in Wisconsin.
Lifting the moratorium doesn’t mean Wisconsin will be build a new plant tomorrow. But it does mean the state can be ready for the inevitable day that science produces a cleaner, safer and more efficient reactor.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.