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View from around the state: Nuclear should be in mix for Wisconsin’s power grid

Gov. Scott Walker is going to unveil sometime in the next several months a statewide energy plan. Included in the plan will be a proposal to lift the state’s moratorium on building new nuclear plants. It should be.

That does not mean that someone will start building new nuclear plants tomorrow. Nor does it mean that the tragedy in Japan doesn’t have lessons for Wisconsin. It just means that discussion and proposals for eventually building new plants will no longer be off the table.

That’s important, because as Wisconsin moves forward into an energy future that needs to be less dependent on carbon-based fuels, nuclear power plants can be an important part of that future.

What Wisconsin needs – what the country needs – is a balanced portfolio. Coal is still the mainstay of electricity generation, but when it comes to carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, it’s the dirtiest fuel. Efforts to make it cleaner have had limited success. Still, given the abundance of coal resources in the United States, it makes sense to continue those efforts.

Natural gas is better, but it’s still a carbon fuel, emitting about half of the carbon emissions that coal plants do. But building more natural gas plants makes sense to reduce the reliance on coal.

Alternative fuels such as solar and wind are preferable, but they have a reliability problem: The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. For the foreseeable future, they remain — with such sources as biomass – promising technologies that can help at the edges of power production but can’t provide the base load generation on which businesses and families rely.

Those alternatives should receive more encouragement and support from Walker’s administration — and he said recently he is open to them — but right now they can’t meet the full need.

Nuclear power can provide base load generation. And although there are some environmental issues in production of the fuel, the plants themselves generate zero carbon emissions. That continues to make nuclear a viable option if the state and country are serious about reducing carbon emissions.

Yes, there are issues. And the earthquake and tsunami that hammered Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant are severe reminders of the need for adequate preparation and thinking through all the contingencies.

While it’s true that not every disaster can be predicted, it is beginning to appear that there may have been some design flaws at the Fukushima plant given its proximity to a fault line and the ocean. Plant owners were slow to release information about the true nature of the disaster at times. And emergency plans may not have been adequate.

There is no guarantee that every plant in the U.S. is better protected from a similar disaster than the Fukushima plant was. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety review in the wake of the Japan disaster is in order. But U.S. plants do appear to be safer, and one thing we know for sure: Wisconsin’s plants at Point Beach and Kewaunee do not sit on earthquake fault lines and passed a 2010 safety review with flying colors. Also, the next generation of plants will be safer than the Fukushima plant.

Nuclear waste remains a worry, especially in the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to shutter the Yucca Mountain repository. Revisiting that issue makes sense, as does reprocessing, which reduces dangers from waste. Efforts to lessen the danger of nuclear waste are ongoing and should be pressed.

Critics also argue that nuclear plants are expensive — and likely to get more expensive in the wake of Japan — and that Wisconsin has adequate power generation now. Both are good points. And odds are that not many single companies — and no single utility — can afford to build, say, a 1,000-megawatt plant. But consortiums of companies could. And the future of nuclear power may lie in smaller modular plants that are simpler and cheaper.

While the state’s energy needs are being met now, climate change regulations could affect the future of the state’s fleet of coal plants. If that’s the case, let’s at least start talking about nuclear plants as an option to replace the coal plants.

As Walker develops his energy plan for Wisconsin, he needs to keep in mind that the state can’t afford to ignore any fuel source. Nor can he ignore the effects of climate change and the requirements that the federal government may impose on utilities.

A balanced portfolio should include traditional base load power plants — perhaps heavier on natural gas — as well as renewable sources such as wind and solar. And, yes, nuclear, too.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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