Nuclear 'tweaks' in energy bill could be a deal-breaker | WisCommunity

Nuclear 'tweaks' in energy bill could be a deal-breaker

When is a "tweak" in a legislative bill a deal breaker?

Maybe, just maybe, when the change is to an already controversial section on nuclear power that's part of the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Bill for Wisconsin.

Many activists think the language agreed upon by the Governor's Task Force on Global Warming, which is the basis for the bill, already goes too far in relaxing state laws on nuclear reactors.

Now, at the request of utilities which want to be able to build new reactors, changes are being considered to make it even easier.

The utilities say it's just a little "tweak" in the language, and that the original draft may be unconstitutional. But some of the environmentalists and consumer advocates who have been supporting the bill are signaling that the changes could be a deal-breaker.

Environmentalists on the Task Force reluctantly agreed to swallow a compromise that removes the requirement that a federal nuclear waste repository be operating before a new reactor can be built in the state.

What they got in return, supposedly, was protection against so-called "merchant plants" -- reactors built by non-Wisconsin companies to send power elsewhere in the country. (It solves a problem that seemingly has never been a problem, but that's another story.)

The draft of the bill now being considered by the legislature says this:

196.493 (2) (am) 4. For certifications made on or after the date specified in the notice published under sub. (3) (b), the entire output of electricity produced by the proposed nuclear power plant will be needed and used to meet the expected requirements for electricity of ratepayers or members of electric cooperatives in this state and the applicant demonstrates to the commission’s satisfaction that the output will be needed and used for this purpose.

Trading that language for lifting the requirement for a federal waste repository doesn't seem like a very good deal for those concerned about the effects of nuclear power on health, safety and the environment.

But a deal's a deal -- except when it isn't.

The ink was hardly dry on the bill draft when utilities began complaining that the language was probably unconstitutional. You can't restrict interstate commerce, they said. And you can't control where electrons go; they're bound to cross state lines.

What worries the utilties even more is a clause that says if one part of the nuclear section is thrown out by the court, the whole section is thrown out. If it weren't for that, they'd just as soon let the court take out the piece they don't like.

So they've been asking for both changes -- take out the requirement that you must use the nuclear power in Wisconsin, and get rid of that non-severability clause that says the whole section rises or falls together.

That change is what a Journal Sentinel story described as "tweaking" the bill's language, is being pushed hard by the utilities.

A representative of one environmental group says the "problem" language is what was agreed upon by the Task Force, and says the utilies are trying to renege on the deal. Katie Nekola, energy program director for Clean Wisconsin, says:

If the nuclear language in the global warming bill is unconstitutional, then why did the utilities and most other members of the Global Warming Task Force agree to it when the vote was taken last year?

The legality of the in-state requirement is not a new issue. It was discussed extensively within the Global Warming Task Force before a vote was taken, and many attorneys were consulted at that time. All members of the task force agreed to support modification of existing law with the condition that new reactors must be built to benefit Wisconsin customers, not to sell power out of state.

The statement that it’s impossible to ensure that power generated by nukes will serve Wisconsin customers because of the way electricity flows along transmission lines is simply absurd.

Utilities and merchant power plants have contracts to buy and sell power to municipal utilities and each other. Although it’s true that electrons can’t be directed along a particular path, those contracts ensure that energy reaches Wisconsin homes and businesses.

The language in the global warming bill requires that any new reactor built in Wisconsin must have a contract with Wisconsin utilities, so that if Wisconsin must bear the risks of radioactive waste storage and reactor accidents, at least we will have a supply of electricity to show for it.

Members of the Task Force entered into an agreement based on compromises, and no new information has emerged that should change that agreement. For utilities to now claim that what they agreed to is unworkable is the classic bait and switch. Lawmakers should stay true to the consensus agreement that was reached, and see this so-called “tweaking” for what it is: an attempt to renege on the agreement.


Other groups, including the Citizens Utility Board, have supported the Task Force language but have said repeatedly that if the nuclear language is changed significantly it will reevaluate its support of the bill. No doubt other environmental groups will do the same.

Meanwhile, a coalition of other groups -- the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Peace Action-Wisconsin, Nukewatch, Coulee Region Progressives and more -- believe the original bill is tilted too far in favor of the nuclear industry and have been pushing to have the entire package of nuclear changes removed from the bill and allow the existing state law to stand.

There are a lot of positive things about the bill, which moves Wisconsin away from reliance on fossil fuels and toward more renewable energy.

But it appears that partisanship will play a big role, and no Republicans are expected to vote for the bill. With tiny majorities in both houses, Wisconsin Democrats face much the same challenge Congressional Dems do in passing a health care bill -- they need almost every vote.

If pro-nuclear forces continue to push their agenda to change the bill, offering nothing in return -- such as further protections on nuclear waste disposal, for example -- the whole compromise could come undone.

Environmentalists don't want to walk away from the bill and its many positive provisions. But they've already had to swallow hard to accept the original version of the nuclear language. More changes may make it more than they can stomach.



February 10, 2010 - 6:56pm