Nuclear vs. solar
Assembly candidates address energy issues
By Robert Cloud
Wisconsin’s energy policy is an issue that clearly defines key differences between the two candidates for the 40th Assembly District.
State Rep. Kevin Petersen, the Republican incumbent, introduced a bill earlier this year to repeal the state’s nuclear moratorium.
Democrat Dmitri Martin wants the state to encourage investment in renewable energy technology and end subsidies for energy produced by fossil fuels.
In 1982, the federal Department of Energy began detailed studies to find sites for long-term storage of the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.
The DOE ranked the Wolf River Batholith, with its granite bedrock, as one of the top three sites in the U.S. for a nuclear waste dump.
Seven counties, including Waupaca County, are within the 1,024-mile area of the Wolf River Batholith.
In April 1983, 89 percent of Wisconsin citizens voted in a referendum to prohibit a high-level radioactive waste repository in the state.
Since then, the DOE dropped the Wolf River Batholith from its list of potential sites.
In 1983, the state enacted a law that has become known as the nuclear moratorium.
The statute did not directly prohibit the construction of new nuclear plants.
Instead, it required that prior to the state’s approval of any new nuclear plants, there must be a federally licensed facility where the radioactive waste from the plants could be disposed.
It also required that plans for new nuclear plants had to demonstrate they would be “economically advantageous to ratepayers.”
Regulators were required to look at all the costs associated with nuclear plants, such as construction, waste disposal, operation and decommissioning.
In 1987, the DOE focused its efforts on developing Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a nuclear waste repository.
However, legal challenges and political opposition resulted in construction delays.
Federal funding for the unfinished site ended in 2011 under the Obama administration.
In April of this year, Gov. Scott Walker signed AB384, Petersen’s bill to repeal the nuclear moratorium.
“Wisconsin is one of the top states in the country for manufacturing,” Petersen said. “There are approximately 450,000 manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin, with thousands of them here in the 40th Assembly District.”
Petersen said the state’s energy policy must look long term and at all the options to provide reliable and cost-effective energy prices to the factories that provide jobs.
“Currently, about 65 percent of the base-load power in Wisconsin is coal, 15 percent is nuclear and 20 percent is hydro, solar, wind, digesters and natural gas,” Petersen said.
Base-load power is the electricity needed to satisfy the needs of all the homes and businesses over a 24-hour period.
“If the wind isn’t blowing on a hot summer day, a windmill will not provide electricity to your air conditioner. Nor will solar panels produce enough energy to heat your house on a gray winter day,” Petersen said.
Petersen noted that sources of energy that are expensive now may be the cheapest alternative in the future.
“Five years ago, natural gas was only used during peak times, such as hot summer days, because it was very expensive,” Petersen said. “Because of fracking, natural gas reserves are up in the U.S., so the price of natural gas has dropped significantly and now it’s one of the least expensive forms of electricity production on the market.”
Petersen said his bill “reopens the door to a technology that has advanced well beyond what it was when our state closed that door 30-plus years ago.”
Petersen points to Generation IV reactors that can use radioactive waste as their source of fuel.
“It isn’t nuclear waste unless we decide to waste it,” according to Petersen, an engineer who served aboard a nuclear submarine in the early 1990s.
Although there are no Generation IV reactors currently in operation, Petersen said China has developed one that is scheduled to go online next year.
Petersen said reconsiderations of the area’s environment, rather than political opposition, is why the DOE removed the Wolf River Batholith from the list of potential nuclear waste sites.
“Before we resort to drastic, potentially catastrophic technologies like nuclear energy, we could do so much more in a cost-effective manner by improving our efficiencies,” Martin said.
Martin owns GreenStar Home Performance, which helps homeowners make their dwellings more energy efficient.
“The cheapest form of energy is called the negawatt,” Martin said. “It’s the energy you never need to generate in the first place because you’ve improved the efficiency of your appliances, your electronic equipment and electrical controls.”
Martin said energy can be saved by replacing electric water heaters with those powered by natural gas, replacing old refrigerators with those that need less power and by “reducing unnecessary, wasteful consumption.”
Instead of encouraging energy efficiency, Martin said Petersen voted with the Republicans to cut $7 million from Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy.
“That agency is specifically designed to help homes, businesses and industries increase their energy efficiencies,” Martin said. “We need to be expanding Focus on Energy’s budget, not building dangerous and expensive nuclear power plants.”
Martin believes the repeal of the nuclear moratorium will reopen the door not only to new nuclear plants in Wisconsin but to the nuclear waste repository.
“We reside on the Wolf River Batholith, which was identified as a top potential repository for nuclear waste,” Martin said. “It’s one of the reasons we fought so hard in this district for a nuclear moratorium.”
He also questions the reliability of nuclear power, noting the long delays, cost overruns and safety issues associated with the construction and operation of nuclear plants.
He said it will take years, perhaps decades, to build any new plant in Wisconsin and that not a single Generation IV reactor is actually producing electricity for the market anywhere in the world.
“There are alternative technologies whereby emissions can be captured from fossil fuel plants and turned into material that has a resale value,” Martin said. “Refitting our current fossil fuel plants makes more sense than the dangers associated with nuclear power plants, the storage of nuclear waste and the terrorist targets they represent.”
Martin said he opposes all subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and wants the state to encourage investment in sustainable energy.
“We have a strong manufacturing history in our state and a lot of talented people who work in manufacturing,” Martin said. “We should be leading the country in the production of solar panels and wind turbines. These are proven technologies that are cost effective.”