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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.

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