By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill Friday lifting Wisconsin’s ban on new nuclear plants, brushing aside fears of meltdowns in hopes of creating what he called a safe energy option for the state.
Only one nuclear plant remains operational in Wisconsin, near Two Rivers on the Lake Michigan shoreline. No major utilities have approached the state looking to build any new plants, according to state Public Service Commission officials. Still, Walker said the measure will provide a “great” carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels. He added that more plants would boost the economy by generating construction and operational jobs and assuring businesses looking to locate in Wisconsin that power is abundant here.
“This is another tool for us in the state,” Walker said before signing the bill at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
State law has prohibited the PSC from approving a new nuclear plant unless a federal facility for storing waste exists and the plant doesn’t burden ratepayers. No such centralized storage facility exists; nuclear plants have been storing their waste on-site in pools and casks. The Republican-authored bill erases the storage and ratepayer requirements, effectively ending the moratorium.
The bill’s supporters maintain nuclear power is a viable renewable energy source and the ratepayer protection language duplicates other statutes that require regulators to determine that any new power plant won’t burden customers. A number of union chapters covering engineers, pipefitters and construction workers have registered in support of the bill.
Critics argue nuclear plants are too costly and too risky, pointing to a meltdown a Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011.
“The consequences of radiation exposure can be catastrophic for generations to come, and the impact to the environment is devastating,” Amber Meyer Smith, government relations director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, wrote to the Assembly energy committee in November.
Walker said during the signing ceremony that plant technology continues to improve and told reporters during a question-and-answer session afterward that Wisconsin isn’t subject to natural disasters like the offshore earthquake and ensuing tsunami that caused the Fukushima meltdown.
“(Wisconsin) is a really safe spot for nuclear,” he said.
Lawmakers have been working to lift the ban for more than a decade. Former Republican state Rep. Mike Huebsch, now the chairman of the Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates utilities, introduced a nearly identical bill to the one Walker signed in 2003. The GOP also included language in the state budget in 2007 that would have lifted the moratorium. Democrats also included lifting it in a sweeping renewable energy bill in 2010. All those attempts failed.