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EPISODE: The Engineering Physics Department Newsletter


Fall / Winter 2007-2008
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Portrait of Michael Corradini, EP Chair

Michael L. Corradini, Chair
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Decorative initial cap As Wisconsin looks for ways to meet its growing demand for cleaner energy, the state can no longer afford to rule out the construction of nuclear power plants. The 23-year-old moratorium on new nuclear plants needs to be lifted.

Nuclear power plants in the state of Wisconsin (Kewaunee and Point Beach) already supply about 16 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity. Wisconsin imports more than 15 percent of its electricity from neighboring Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois—and a majority of that comes from the nuclear power plants reliably producing baseload electricity in those states. These plants were built in the 1970s and, following that time, the Wisconsin Legislature enacted the moratorium on nuclear plant construction. The law requires that the economic viability of nuclear power plants be considered and that a permanent waste disposal site be in operation before new plants can be constructed in Wisconsin.

In fall 2006, the Legislature empowered a special legislative committee to review this policy; it held a series of public meetings with testimony by many citizens and a wide range of stakeholders. After these meetings and deliberations, the committee overwhelmingly recommended that the moratorium be repealed. I was a member of that committee, and two key points led to this recommendation:

• The economics of electricity production is already considered by the Public Service Commission for any new power plant application and thus this law is redundant.

• Spent fuel storage at nuclear power plants is demonstrated to be safe and reliable and the disposal of high-level waste at Yucca Mountain is doable and licensing is proceeding.

Those who believe nuclear power is not economic should consider the facts. The total production costs at U.S. nuclear plants are lower than any other form of baseload electricit. Production costs at U.S. nuclear plants averaged less than 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh), lower than coal at about 2 cents per kwh, and far lower than natural gas plants.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has begun to rebuild the Watts Bar Plant. This unit was left unfinished in the 1980s due to a lack of electricity demand at that time. The NRG South Texas project, TVA, Dominion, and Duke Energy have officially requested approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a combined construction-operation license for five reactors and the NRC is preparing for at least two dozen more reactor orders. These new plants designs are separately certified by the NRC. They have passive safety features and will hopefully allow for lower construction costs than current plants.

Clearly, new plants—once completed—will cost more than operating plants, but all economic estimates indicate that nuclear will be cost-competitive with baseload coal plants. Nuclear plants will have a clear economic advantage if carbon-emissions requirements are enacted.

Finally, spent fuel—and the high-level radioactive waste it contains (tons per plant per year)—is solid, concentrated and contained. It is currently safely and reliably stored at plant sites and will be eventually disposed of in a geologic repository. This can be compared to the thousands of tons of sulfur-oxide and nitrous-oxides, the millions of tons of carbon-dioxide, and the tons of vaporized heavy metals that are annually released into the atmosphere and go up the stack from coal-burning plants, or the millions of tons of fly-ash that must be buried.

Conservation and energy efficiency are very important to the state, but they are not a sufficient solution. Renewable energy technologies such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and wind turbines are also very important, but they cannot be counted on as baseload electricity. Nuclear power plants need to be allowed to be part of the mix of energy technologies that Wisconsin can choose from to assure that it can allow for economic
growth in the future with cleaner energy.

Michael L. Corradini, Chair
147 Engineering Research Building
1500 Engineering Dr.
Madison, WI 53706-1687

Tel: 608/263-1646
Fax: 608/263-7451


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Date last modified: Friday, 4-January-2008 11:49:00 CDT
Date created: 4-January-2008