By Bill Christofferson
The struggling nuclear power industry’s dreams of becoming relevant again have gotten a lift from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has certified NuScale Power’s “small modular reactor,” the first such design cleared for use in the United States.
Two utilities serving Wisconsin customers, and perhaps a third, appear eager to jump on the small reactor bandwagon, which they tout as a solution to the climate crisis. Dairyland Power Cooperative in LaCrosse, and Xcel Energies, operating as Northern States Power in Wisconsin, have contracted with NuScale, an Oregon firm, to evaluate the potential of using the small-scale reactors. NuScale is not a disinterested party; it developed the modular reactors and wants to sell them, so it is safe to expect some positive recommendations.
Madison Gas and Electric may also be interested. CEO Jeffrey Keebler said last year at a Wisconsin Technology Council meeting that he hasn’t ruled out more nuclear, including maybe partnering with Dairyland Power. But, he added, it would have to be “right for our community,” Wisconsin Public Radio reported. It would be a hard sell in Madison.
The utilities hope that new technology and smaller reactors will overcome the problems plaguing the industry since its inception. It used to promise energy “too cheap to meter.” Now it promotes poison power as a solution to climate change. It never quits pitching claptrap. Although there has not been a new reactor in Wisconsin for 50 years, hope springs eternal.
Critics pan the prospective new reactors, none of which is yet operating. “Too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain. That, in a nutshell, describes NuScale’s planned small modular reactor (SMR) project, which has been in development since 2001 and will not begin commercial operations before 2029, if ever,” according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
“Regulatory” is the NRC’s middle name, but it and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are both unabashed cheerleaders and enablers for reactors. “We are thrilled to announce the historic rulemaking from the NRC for NuScale’s small modular reactor design, and we thank the Department of Energy for [its] support throughout this process,” said NuScale President and CEO John Hopkins, who added that the DOE “has been an invaluable partner.” And that’s from a DOE press release. The DOE has invested $300 million in taxpayer handouts to support the NuScale pipe dream.
The same reactor problems that have endangered the public for decades have not magically disappeared.
A carbon-free source of energy? As emeritus professor of sociology at UW-La Crosse Al Gedicks puts it: “Nuclear power is not carbon-free electricity. At each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining, milling, and enrichment, to construction, decommissioning and waste storage, nuclear power burns fossil fuel and contributes greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global climate change. Compared to renewable energy, nuclear power releases four to five times the CO2 per unit of energy produced.”
Economics are the primary reason almost no new nuclear reactors have begun operating in the U.S. in decades, especially as renewable energy costs have plummeted. Reactor startups are notorious for astronomical cost overruns. NuScale has already upped the estimated energy cost for its first planned project in Idaho from $58 to $89 per megawatt-hour — before any work has even begun. The first reactors would go into operation in 2029 at the earliest, but the odds are it will be years later, given past experience.
The reactors produce high-level radioactive waste, some of which is so deadly, and decays so slowly, it must be kept out of the environment for 1 million years. Not to worry, the industry says, a permanent solution will be found, although they have been producing the waste for 65 years now with no answer in sight. In Wisconsin, the waste is accumulating next to Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River in casks that may last 100 years — if all goes well.
—Bill Christofferson is a former journalist and political consultant who worked in state and local government, now retired. He is a founder of Nukewatch and was the first director, from 1980-1983.