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Wisconsin Republicans push to lift nuclear plant moratorium

A Republican legislator is renewing a push to lift Wisconsin’s moratorium on new nuclear power plants, saying the state’s manufacturers must have a reliable source of energy as burning fossil fuels grows more expensive.

Under current Wisconsin law, state regulators can’t grant permission for a new nuclear power plant unless a federal storage facility for the waste from nuclear plants across the country exists and the plant wouldn’t burden state ratepayers. No such centralized storage facility exists, however. President Barack Obama’s administration pulled funding for creating one at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, leaving nuclear plants to continue storing waste on-site in pools and casks.

Rep. Kevin Petersen, R-Waupaca, has introduced a bill that would erase both the storage and ratepayer language from the law, which would effectively end the moratorium. The measure also would require the state to consider nuclear power when designing energy programs and handing out energy grants and loans.

Petersen argued in a memo seeking co-sponsors that nuclear power is a clean, affordable option for manufacturers as utilities work to meet new federal greenhouse gas emissions rules. The rules require Wisconsin to reduce carbon emissions by 41 percent over the next 15 years. The mandate has stoked fears that utilities will raise rates to cover upgrades, hurting large commercial energy customers such as manufacturers.

“It is time to lift the moratorium,” Petersen wrote. “Advanced nuclear energy is a clean, safe, and affordable way to meet future energy demands in Wisconsin, the United States, and around the world.”

A number of union chapters covering engineers, pipefitters and construction workers have registered in support. So has Madison-based Alliant Energy, which supplies electricity to customers across southern Wisconsin and most of Iowa. The utility’s spokesman, Scott Reigstad, said Alliant officials have no plans to build a nuclear plant but believe all energy options should be on the table.

Peterson accepted $2,525 from donors in the energy sector between 2006 and 2012, according to government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s campaign finance database. Petersen hasn’t taken any money from anyone in that industry since 2012, the database shows. He accepted $6,900 from donors connected to the manufacturing sector between mid-2006 and October 2014, a month before the last legislative elections.

The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, accepted nearly $5,000 in donations from the energy industry between May 2007 and November of last year, the database shows. He took $34,000 from workers in the manufacturing sector during that span.

Former Republican Rep. Mike Huebsch introduced an almost identical bill in 2003. The GOP also proposed language in the state budget in 2007 that would have lifted the ban and Democrats included lifting the prohibition in a sweeping renewable energy bill in 2010. All those attempts eventually failed.

This time around, the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter is the only organization to register against the proposal. Thirty Assembly Republicans and two Senate Republicans have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he believes most of his caucus is open to the bill in light of the greenhouse gas limits.

“I would certainly rather have nuclear power where it is inexpensive I the long run and definitely produces zero greenhouse gases,” he told reporters Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to an emails inquiring about the bill’s chances in that house.

Wisconsin Republicans have slammed the Obama administration over rules limiting power plant emissions of heat-trapping gases. Gov. Scott Walker has joined a lawsuit challenging the president’s authority to issue clean air directives.

The Wisconsin Legislature’s 2015 session has ended, and floor votes on nuclear power couldn’t occur until next year.

Wisconsin currently has only one operational nuclear power plant, located near Two Rivers on the Lake Michigan shoreline.