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The 10-Year Road to Repealing Wisconsin's Ban on Nuclear Energy

Mike McGarey
The following is a guest post from Mike McGarey, senior advisor for local and state government affairs at NEI. 

Over the weekend, at a governors conference here in Washington, I greeted a friend whom I’d met 10 years earlier when she was a staffer to then-Wisconsin Assemblyman (now Wisconsin Public Service Commission Chairman) Phil Montgomery. My friend’s former boss was among the early advocates for repealing Wisconsin’s longstanding moratorium on new nuclear, and we high-fived last week’s bipartisan state Senate passage of the repeal bill. The bill now awaits Governor Scott Walker’s promised signature. Enactment will ensure that reliable, zero-emissions nuclear will be among a host of technologies Wisconsin’s utilities and policymakers can consider going forward to meet the state’s energy, environmental and economic needs.

Looking back, I recall a number of key players and events that slowly turned a polarizing issue – viewed by some as partisan, and a long shot in a purple state – into the successful reform of outdated policy. Here’s a brief timeline on the moratorium repeal effort.

2006 – 2007

NEI participated in a debate in Madison with anti-nuclear activists before a Special Legislative Committee on Nuclear Power, which was reviewing the nuclear ban. Introduction of repeal legislation, sponsored by Rep. Montgomery and others, soon followed and the Assembly Energy & Utility Committee held hearings in December 2007. Organized Labor, particularly the building trades, quickly emerged as reliable champions of nuclear energy (see IBEW and MBCTC statements below).



But Wisconsin’s divided government – a Republican-majority House and Democratic-led state Senate and governor – was in no hurry to move repeal legislation. A respected labor leader in the state observed, “Our key will be converting Democrats.” And making inroads with Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as environmental activists.

2008

Frank Jablonski
One such activist emerged at a March 2008 Wisconsin Public Utility Institute “Advances in Nuclear” conference in Madison, in the person of an environmental attorney and former general counsel to Clean Wisconsin's predecessor organization, Wisconsin's Environmental Decade. Frank Jablonski had litigated environmental cases for years but was largely self-taught (and remarkably conversant on) nuclear safety, reactor technology, used fuel management and the considerable clean air and zero-carbon benefits of nuclear energy. Before the audience of policymakers, academics, utility representatives and more than a few nuclear opponents, Frank told the story of how his own dogged research and open mind had caused him to change his stance on nuclear energy from “against” to “strongly in favor.” Despite the disapproval of some of his former allies in the environmental movement, Frank became a one-man nuclear advocacy machine.

In July, a task force appointed by Governor Jim Doyle (D) issued its report, Wisconsin’s Strategy for Reducing Global Warming, which recommended modifying the state’s moratorium so that the nuclear option might be considered, among others, in the effort to meet emissions reduction goals.

That autumn, Dr. Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, addressed the Energy Hub conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and told the crowd that basic scientific literacy clearly indicated the need for nuclear energy in addressing climate change. Conference organizers later reported that attendees’ evaluations identified Dr. Moore’s nuclear presentation as the best in the day-long event.

2010

In the 2010 election for governor, won by Republican Scott Walker, both candidates had supported nuclear energy. Nuclear moratorium legislation was introduced in several more sessions, but invariably languished, despite the efforts of Democratic lawmakers such as Assemblyman Jim Soletski and Senator Jeffrey Plale, who were great champions and devoted legislators. 

2011 – 2014

The March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan effectively ended the moratorium repeal movement for several years, as the U.S. nuclear industry rebuilt the public’s trust in the inherent safety of the American reactor fleet. The attempted 2012 recall of Governor Walker (which failed) and 13 sitting state senators from both parties in 2011 and 2012 (all but three recall attempts failed) didn’t help prospects for bipartisan cooperation on repealing the ban.

2015 – 2016

But Frank Jablonski kept in touch with nuclear supporters in the legislature, governor’s office, Public Service Commission and in the labor, business, academic, environmental and Madison policy communities, looking for opportunities to grow awareness of nuclear’s special attributes. He met Assemblyman Kevin Petersen (R-Waupaca), a Navy veteran and nuclear reactor operator-turned-small businessman, who resurrected the effort to finally repeal Wisconsin’s nuclear ban. Assembly and Senate committees prepared for hearings on Rep. Petersen’s repeal bill, AB 384, in November 2015, and its Senate companion.

In December, the Assembly Committee on Energy & Utilities unanimously approved Rep. Petersen’s bill 13-0 prior to its adoption by the full body by voice vote. Last week, the Senate adopted the bill on a strong, bipartisan vote of 23-9, with the Senate Democratic leadership joining the majority.

During the 10 years between the 2006 debate and this latest round of legislation, the world changed greatly. A broad scientific consensus emerged that there is no credible strategy for reducing carbon emissions from the electricity sector that doesn’t include more nuclear generation. Commercial nuclear energy was a key component of the U.S. carbon reduction commitments at the recent international climate talks in Paris. Wisconsin media editorialized in favor of lifting the ban and praised the Senate’s vote.
  
Here’s what environmentalist Margi Kindig wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal: 
The Wisconsin Legislature did the right thing by removing outdated restrictions on building nuclear power plants in Wisconsin.

I have been a lifelong environmentalist, citizen member of Gov. Jim Doyle's global warming task force, and former board chair of Clean Wisconsin. I had always opposed nuclear power because I considered it to be dangerous. However, I now know that my opposition was not supported by science but was ideologically-driven, parroting many of the organizations on which I depended for my information. I have learned to look instead to the best sources of science: the National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and consensus science generally.
And just as earlier classes of UW-Madison engineering students had welcomed the pro-nuclear co-founder of Greenpeace to campus like a rock star eight years ago, today’s engineers are ready to work in nuclear…in Wisconsin! The state’s skilled workforce continues to maintain the two operating reactors and is ready to build more.

Questions arise: When might Wisconsin build new nuclear? Would new reactors be of the large scale presently under construction in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia, or one of the promising small reactor designs now under development? These questions are premature, as it’s not certain when load growth will require new generation. An NEI witness recently told legislators it’s hard to predict our energy future, but it’s wise to provide policymakers with options.


The moratorium repeal bill allows Wisconsinites interested in clean, safe, reliable baseload electricity and a diverse energy portfolio to consider a technology that does it all: nuclear. 

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