Would a truly "clean energy" source produce "one of the nation's most hazardous substances"?
Of course not.
So why include provisions on nuclear reactors in the state's Clean Energy Jobs Act, recently introduced in the state legislature? Nuclear reactors generate high-level radioactive waste, which is "one of the nation's most hazardous substances," according to the U.S. Govern-ment Accountability Office.
In a November 2009 report, the respected nonpartisan agency found there were no good options for dealing with the radioactive waste. And, as the federal government continues its decades-long struggle to find a solution to this grave public safety, environmental and political problem, the costs to taxpayers and ratepayers will skyrocket.
In the meantime, radioactive waste is piling up at 80 sites in 35 states, including three sites in Wisconsin. Many sites are active nuclear reactors, where the mounting waste problem has forced plant operators to rearrange "the racks holding spent fuel in (cooling) pools ... to allow for more dense storage," according to the GAO report. "Even with this re-racking, spent nuclear fuel pools are reaching their capacities."
Although the GAO notes that radioactive waste can also be stored in dry casks next to reactors, it warns that "extended on-site storage could introduce possible risks to the safety and security of the waste as the storage systems degrade and the waste decays, potentially requiring new maintenance and security measures."
The GAO report should be mandatory reading for anyone contemplating weakening Wisconsin's safeguards on new nuclear reactors. For 25 years, state law has required that there be a federally licensed repository for high-level nuclear waste, before new reactors can be built here. This condition is needed to ensure that more of our communities don't become dumping grounds for "one of the nation's most hazardous substances."
Unfortunately, one of the most important environmental measures ever to come before our state Legislature - the Clean Energy Jobs Act, or Assembly Bill 649 - contains a provision that would weaken our nuclear safeguards. The provision would completely remove the requirement for a nuclear waste repository. Instead, it would allow new nuclear reactors to be built in the state if the plan to deal with the radioactive waste is deemed "economic, reasonable, stringent and in the public interest."
While that language may sound strong, it's how the nuclear industry describes its practice of keeping the radioactive waste at reactor sites indefinitely - the same non-solution that the GAO warned about.
There is no effective way to deal with nuclear waste, short of avoiding its production in the first place. No country - not even France, the favorite example of nuclear boosters - has been able to build what scientists consider the safest long-term storage option for radioactive nuclear waste: a deep geologic repository.
Why does the Clean Energy Jobs Act include problematic nuclear provisions, among its many commendable measures to address global warming and strengthen Wisconsin's economy by increasing energy efficiency and supporting renewable energy projects?
Simply put, it's spin- and lobbying-driven politics. For years, the nuclear industry has lobbied the federal government furiously - and often, successfully - for more subsidies and fewer regulations, claiming to be the answer to global warming. For the past year, these same lobbyists have been active in Madison, and some state legislators have bought their arguments. As a result, pro-nuclear provisions were included in the Clean Energy Jobs Act, in a bid to increase support for a complex bill sure to be contentious.
Yet good politics often doesn't make good policy. Keeping nuclear provisions in the Clean Energy Jobs Act gives serious pause to environmentalists, public health professionals and concerned citizens who understand that their state must mount a robust response to global warming. They know that the changes would open the door to more nuclear reactors - and more radioactive waste stockpiles - in Wisconsin.
Even worse, the provisions may incline federal policymakers seeking an alternative to the long-stalled and now officially rejected Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository to look our way. In the 1980s, the Wolf River Batholith region was high on the list of potential sites for a national nuclear waste repository. Passing a global warming measure that relaxes our nuclear safeguards could get Wisconsin back on that list.
Nuclear reactors do not produce clean energy; they create "one of the nation's most hazardous substances." Therefore, legislators must take the pro-nuclear provisions out of the Clean Energy Jobs Act.
Diane Farsetta is coordinator of the Carbon Free, Nuclear Free campaign of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice (wnpj.org), a coalition of more than 160 environmental, peace, religious, labor and human rights groups from across the state.