Nuclear Energy

Cooling tower of a nuclear power plant along water sourceNuclear energy currently provides nearly 20 percent of the electricity in the United States and about 14 percent of the electricity in Wisconsin. While there are three nuclear power plants in the state, only one is still operational — Point Beach Nuclear Plant, located north of Manitowoc on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Nuclear power plants work by capturing the energy released after breaking apart the nuclei of uranium and plutonium atoms. This process — called nuclear fission — then heats water that powers a steam turbine that ultimately generates electricity. While in operation, nuclear power plants don’t emit any carbon dioxide or other air pollutants, and proponents thus see these plants as alternative sources of energy that don’t rely on fossil fuels and don’t contribute to climate change.

Despite these advantages, nuclear power is not the answer to the climate crisis for two primary reasons:

1) It’s not clean or sustainable.

  • Nuclear power also produces radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. After uranium is used to generate electricity, this toxic “spent fuel” must be contained to prevent release into the environment where it can cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. At first, this nuclear waste is stored in huge pools near the plant or in large containers. However, these are just short term strategies — after a few years, the waste must be buried deep underground. Several containment leaks have occurred — contaminating soil, groundwater, and surface water. If we keep relying on nuclear power, we’ll just keep generating more and more of this toxic waste. This process isn’t sustainable.

  • The disposal of radioactive waste is very difficult and expensive. The main issue is that the hazardous waste produced remains toxic for a very long time, some of them for than a million years. This makes control and management of nuclear waste extremely difficult. The most common method for nuclear waste disposal is storage and as one may imagine, radioactive storage isn't cheap. In fact, the United States has spent more than $38 million on repositing our nation's nuclear waste. 

  • It's unlikely, but still possible. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin will not approve the construction of a new nuclear plant unless the following are true:

    Workers in HAZMAT suits and gas masks clean radioactive waste at Three Mile IslandDespite assurances that these plants are safe, most nuclear plants in the U.S. have leaked toxic quantities of radioactive materials into the environment, potentially polluting our water, air, and sources of food. Of the 61 nuclear power plants operating in 2017, more than 70 percent had recorded a spill or leak at some point since they were built. From 2000 to 2009, there were 38 leaks in total. A few nuclear plants in neighboring Illinois have some of the worst safety records, having suffered from dozens of spills that have released hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water into the ground. One leak took 8 months to fix and spiked the radiation levels of nearby groundwater to 375 times the safe amount.

2) Nuclear power doesn’t make financial sense.

It’s just too expensive, especially compared to wind and solar. Today’s nuclear power plants are often unprofitable and extremely old, with an average age of 39 years. Similarly, building new nuclear power plants is extremely difficult — they require enormous upfront costs, are plagued by delays, often go billions of dollars over-budget, and can take at least a decade to build. Since 1996, only one nuclear power plant has successfully gotten up and run, and one company even went bankrupt trying to construct a plant in Tennessee. Coupled with the falling costs of other types of energy, nuclear doesn’t have much of a future in the United States. This realization even prompted researchers to call nuclear power “unaffordable and economically uncompetitive.

Will there be new nuclear power plants in Wisconsin?

It's unlikely, but still possible nonetheless. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin will not approve of the construction of new nuclear plants unless it finds the following to be true:

1) That there is a federally licensed facility or facility outside the United States available for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste.

2) That the new plant is economically advantageous to ratepayers when compared with feasible alternatives. 

We have to ensure that the PSCW will not approve of the construction of any new nuclear facilities and that the Point Beach Units 1 and 2 are shut down after their license expires in 2030 and 2033 respectively. In order to do this, we must promote the construction and support of renewable energy systems such as solar power or wind turbines, with both of which becoming increasingly more affordable.