Changing Fortunes for Nuclear Energy in Wisconsin?

February 15, 2016, 10:25PMANS Nuclear CafePaul Wilson

Just over three years ago, we learned of Dominion's decision to shut down and decommission the Kewaunee nuclear power plant. It had a strong operating history and a recently renewed license for more than 20 more years of operation, but the low and still dropping price of natural gas was presenting a growing economic challenge for this single-unit plant. Looking at the market data from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the total annual revenue available to a generator at the Kewaunee node in the grid dropped by nearly 40 percent¹. With the closing of the LaCrosse boiling water reactor 26 years earlier, this left the Point Beach nuclear power plant's two units (620 MWe each) as the only operating power reactors in Wisconsin and saw nuclear energy's share of the electricity mix drop to roughly 15 percent. There was little evidence of any political engagement to keep this plant open, despite the important economic impact of Kewaunee on its region and the (still) ongoing challenges with employment in Wisconsin.

There are small signs, however, that give some hope for a brighter future for nuclear energy in Wisconsin. Most importantly, legislation is successfully moving through both the state's assembly and senate to repeal the current restrictions on the construction of new nuclear power plants. Statutes were enacted in 1983 that impose two requirements on any new nuclear power plant:

  • That it be in the best economic interest of Wisconsin taxpayers, and
  • that there be an operating facility for the storage of used nuclear fuel.

The first of these is no different from the standard requirements imposed by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin on the construction of new generation facilities. The second of these has posed a bigger challenge and resulted in a de facto moratorium on the new nuclear power in Wisconsin. The current legislation, sponsored by former Navy submariner and Wisconsin Rep. Kevin Peterson (R., Waupaca) will not only remove those restrictions, but will also insert advanced nuclear energy² in the state's priority list for new generation: below renewables and above fossil fuels.

While no one expects new nuclear plants to spring up anytime soon in Wisconsin, if passed this legislation will effectively require utilities to actively consider nuclear power plants before they can build any form of fossil power plant, even if they ultimately can justify the latter. At current natural gas prices, it won't be hard to justify building a combined cycle natural gas plant over a nuclear power plant today. The Clean Power Plan, cited as part of the motivation for this legislation, won't have much impact either. Wisconsin relies heavily on coal-fired power and has lots of room to simply switch to natural gas to meet its targets. (Never mind the fact that Wisconsin is party to a lawsuit to overturn the Clean Power Plan before it goes into force.)

Opponents of removing the statutory restrictions have pointed to accidents like Fukushima and raised the specter of a permanent geologic repository in northern Wisconsin as an outcome of this legislation. Although the logic of this tactic is questionable-the existing restrictions don't address either of these concerns, anyway-the political value is clear.  

In an op-ed I wrote with climate scientist Jack Williams in December, we pointed out that nuclear energy provides a rare opportunity for building bridges across party lines. Nuclear energy is "business friendly" because of its ability to offer reliable electricity with stable prices for the state's manufacturing sector. It is also "climate-safe" because its life-cycle emissions are on par with most renewable energy technologies. Bill AB384 received unanimous bipartisan support in the Wisconsin assembly's Committee on Energy and Utilities, passed by voice vote in the full assembly, and has been voted out of the senate's Committee on Natural Resources and Energy for consideration by the full senate. Many are hoping that this legislation will make it to the senate floor before it ends its current session in the coming weeks.

¹Based on three year averages of 2006-2008 vs 2010-2012 with data processed by Eric Anderson and available at

²Advanced nuclear energy is defined as "a reactor design or amended reactor design approved after December 31, 2010, by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Paul P.H. Wilson, Ph.D. is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Part of his research focuses on addressing policy-driven questions about the adoption of advanced nuclear fuel cycles.