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Utility executive expands push for second nuclear power plant in Wisconsin

Rendering of small modular reactor
NuScale Power
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NuScale has released this drawing of the inside of its proposed small modular reactor.

A Wisconsin utility executive is stepping up his sales job for the idea of adding a new nuclear power plant in the state. The proposal has supporters and critics.

The two reactors at the Point Beach nuclear plant north of Manitowoc continue to generate electricity, including for We Energies customers. There's even a controversial proposal to keep the plant running until about 2050, when it would be roughly 80 years old.

But otherwise across the U.S. over the last 35 years, the nuclear power industry has been shrinking. In the Midwest alone, plants at Kewaunee, Wisconsin; Zion, Illinois and just south of La Crosse at Genoa, Wisconsin have shut down.

Now, the organization that ran the Genoa facility is talking about adding a smaller, more modern nuclear plant. The organization is Dairyland Power Cooperative. Its president and CEO, Brent Ridge, said as the U.S. tries to reduce carbon emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants and adjust to the inconsistencies of solar and wind power, more nuclear is the way to go.

"If you want there to be less carbon, and you want a reliable, safe economic grid that will keep together our economic 24/7 engine, nuclear is part of that future," he said.

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Chuck Quirmbach
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Brad Ridge, of Dairyland Power Cooperative, speaks to the Wisconsin Technology Council on May 24.

Ridge said he's not talking about a new facility that's as physically huge as Point Beach, which covers more than 1,200 acres. Rather, he's looking into an emerging technology known as SMR, or small modular reactor. Supporters say SMR's can be built in a factory and as many as twelve of the small modules can be put together at the site of the plant, covering as little as 35 acres.

Federal agencies are giving early support to a design from the U.S. company NuScale, which promises a reactor that passively cools itself without need for additional water, power or operator action.

Dairyland's Ridge said he's looking at the NuScale plans, though there is at least one catch, capital expenditures, or in business lingo — capex.

"High upfront capex, even if we're talking SMRs, it's a high capex. It's a lot less than the traditional big plants. But it's a lot more than a cleaner, combined-cycle gas plant," he said.

So, Ridge said his cooperative hopes to partner with other utilities on exploring a new nuclear plant for Wisconsin.

Ridge spoke May 24 at a Wisconsin Technology Council forum in Madison. The CEO of Madison Gas and Electric, Jeffrey Keebler, also spoke. He said MGE has switched a coal-plant to cleaner burning natural gas, and is adding hundreds of millions of dollars of renewable energy and battery storage of renewables. But Keebler said he hasn't ruled out more nuclear, including maybe partnering with Dairyland Power.

"Yes, it's very possible we could go down a path with Dairyland, or anyone else, to yes look at the technology. And then, if we decide the technology is valid, we have another step that we would do and that is, is that right for our community? And our community tends to have pretty strong opinions on things, and we'd need to see if that's right for our community," Keebler said.

That community is liberal Dane County, though MGE also has a financial interest in the We Energies coal-fired plant in Oak Creek.

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Physicians for Social Responsibility-Wisconsin
Hannah Mortensen of the Wisconsin chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility

In Dane County, Hannah Mortensen of the Wisconsin chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, or PSR, has several concerns about SMR.

"We see small modular reactors as too expensive, way too uncertain, too risky and too late to solve our climate crisis. PSR-Wisconsin believes in promoting and focusing on our current technologies and advancing those, which are energy storage, conservation and efficiency and clean, safe renewable energy that we can do right now," she told WUWM.

Mortensen said she also worries about more highly radioactive waste being produced at a new nuclear plant. Currently, the nuclear industry stores waste inside the plants or just outside in concrete and steel casks. There are hopes of taking the waste to a national repository or dump, or reprocessing more of the waste in the U.S. But moving ahead on those efforts could take years.

It would also take maybe seven or eight years to get a new nuclear plant built in Wisconsin, with the debate over such a plan expected to last at least that long.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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