Skip to main content

Debate Brings Heat to Wisconsin...

...And man can they use it. It was so astonishingly cold that my eyelashes froze. But I digress...

As Eric posted below, I was in Wisconsin last week for a debate about the potential for new nuclear power plants in the state. The event was organized by University of Wisconsin-Madison students in Dr. Richard Shaten’s course, “Energy, Society, and the Environment.” Nuclear engineering student Megan Sharrow extended the invitation to me.

I’m pleased to see a university encouraging and providing opportunities for its students to think critically and to thoughtfully consider both sides of issues that affect their community, state, and nation (is anyone from Rutgers reading?).

Wisconsin currently has a law that prohibits its Public Service Commission (PSC) from approving the construction of a new nuclear plant unless 1) there is a facility with adequate capacity for the disposal of all high-level nuclear waste generated by power plants in Wisconsin, and 2) the PSC finds that the proposed plant, in comparison with feasible alternatives, is economically advantageous to ratepayers.

Meeting the second requirement means that the PSC must:
1) Determine that there is a reliable and adequate nuclear fuel supply;

2) Consider the costs for constructing, operating, and decommissioning nuclear power plants and for disposing of nuclear waste;

3) Consider any other factor having an impact on the economics of nuclear power plants.
Early this year, bills were introduced to eliminate these special rules so that new nuclear power plants would be subject to the same approval requirements applicable to the construction of other generation sources. The Wisconsin legislature also created a special committee to investigate the issue.

Representing the opposition to repealing the statute was Alfred Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility(PSR). I was surprised to learn that Meyer is NOT a physician of any kind. This is not an insult to him, he is obviously a well-educated man, but you may recall that Helen Caldicott founded PSR (though I could find no mention of her at their website). Every time I’ve heard Caldicott speak she has mentioned the “26,000 doctors around the world” that have joined PSR because they believe nuclear power plants harm people’s health. So, after discovering that such a prominent local member is not a doctor I researched the organization’s websites. I found that one needs only to be a “concerned citizen” to join. Furthermore, the group’s primary missions are
Security: for the prevention of nuclear war, against the development and use of nuclear weapons, and for a reduction in the role of armed force in US foreign and security policy;

Environment and Health: to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.
I had to search quite a bit to find evidence of their opposition to commercial nuclear power. Small points, to be sure, but further examples of Caldicott misrepresenting the facts.

In my opening statement I said that nuclear energy can help meet society's demand for clean, safe, reliable and affordable electricity and that my primary goal is:
to encourage citizens to evaluate each energy technology with the same objective criteria.
In other words, we mustn’t legislate special requirements for nuclear unless we hold all energy technologies to the same high standards of health and environmental protection and economic benefit. In addition, all technologies should be evaluated for their contribution to energy diversification and stable power supply.

In his statement, Meyer objected to calling the current law a “moratorium” (a word I never used) on nuclear, and said that it is a sensible measure to consider nuclear power’s unique dangers. He strongly favors conservation as a policy to eliminate the need for nuclear power.

In my opening statement and in my answers to questions I made it clear that I support efforts towards conservation and energy efficiency, but that those can only slow the rate of increasing demand, they will not reduce our demand. I also support the development of renewable sources, but repeated that they must be evaluated with the same criteria as nuclear. Among the issues that I asked the audience to consider were:

  • The effect intermittent sources have on grid stability. I used the recent story from Alberta’s Electric System Operator as an example.
  • The cost and feasibility of renewables providing a significant portion of our electricity when even the American Wind Energy Association states that under the most aggressive growth scenario wind could provide only 6% of the nation’s electricity by 2020.
  • The disposal of toxic wastes from the production and use of solar panels—waste that never decays (And is Wisconsin too far north for solar, anyway?)
  • The effect on cost and energy security of becoming too dependent on natural gas to generate electricity.
And I repeatedly said that I am not opposed to any of these energy technologies but that if we evaluate each choice fairly we will find that
Nuclear, coal, natural gas, and renewables must be thoughtfully deployed to protect our health, the environment, our economy and the security of Wisconsin and our nation.
The arguments opposing nuclear were the standard ones that I am accustomed to countering: waste, proliferation, economics, security, etc.. It seems that people still think a terrorist can walk into a plant, throw a used fuel assembly on their shoulder, walk out with it, and with a little duct tape and other items from their neighborhood Home Depot, make a nuclear bomb. I carefully explained why commercial power plants are not a proliferation risk but Meyer and others continued to blur the issues. Finally, I strenuously objected to Meyer tying commercial power to weapons and in response to one of his catastrophic scenarios I said, “I fail to see how terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon by ship to San Francisco and detonating it has anything to do with commercial nuclear power plants in Wisconsin.”

There were some strange questions from the audience. One fellow didn’t believe that a terrorist attack at a nuclear power plant wouldn’t destroy all the safety barriers and cause widespread death and destruction. He brought up aircraft attacks, assaults on used fuel casks, etc. For each of his points I explained how the health and safety of the public is protected. He finally asked, “So even if terrorists dropped a nuclear bomb at a plant, you’re saying that wouldn’t be a problem?” I responded, “If a nuclear bomb explodes at a commercial facility, the power plant is the least of your concerns.”

Overall I was pleased with the outcome of the debate, thought it is difficult to explain complex issues in 2-minute rebuttals. Thanks again to the organizers and the participants.


robert merkel said…
I think the confusion regarding the proliferation risks posed by nuclear plants arises through the following syllogism:

1) given access to HEU, your average home handyperson could build a working nuclear weapon (well, I exaggerate a little, but not that much by all reports).
2) nuclear power plants could be used to create fissile material that could be turned into a bomb.
3) therefore, the fissile material created in the normal commercial operation of nuclear power plants can be turned into a nuclear weapon by your average home handyperson.

Of course, this isn't true. Illustrating the flaw in this argument explicitly might help next time this point comes up.
Anonymous said…
The other mistake is a common logic error: a true implication statement does not imply that its contrary is also true.
In this case:
All states that wish to develop nuclear weapons build nuclear reactors
- this is true, at least so far historically.
All states that build nuclear reactors wish to develop nuclear weapons
- this is not true.

Convincing people that they have made a simple mistake of deduction is surprising difficult, and often impossible if they have acted on or publicly committed to their mistaken conclusion.

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…