MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Legislators moved closer toward lifting Wisconsin's ban on new nuclear power plants Tuesday, with the Assembly passing a bill that would do away with the moratorium despite Democrats' warnings about dangerous meltdowns and radioactive waste.
Approved on a voice vote in the Assembly, the measure now goes to the state Senate. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn't immediately respond to an email inquiring about the bill's chances.
Right now, state regulators can't approve a new nuclear power plant unless a federal facility for storing waste from nuclear plants nationwide exists and such a plant doesn't burden ratepayers. No such national facility exists, so nuclear plants store their waste on-site.
Rep. Keven Petersen's bill would erase the storage facility and ratepayer clauses from state law, clearing the way for new power plants. The Waupaca Republican told reporters before the vote that nuclear energy is evolving and some reactors can now process their own waste.
He added that nuclear energy is a viable alternative to help the state meet new federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The rules require Wisconsin to reduce carbon emissions by 41 percent over the next 15 years, stoking fears that utilities will raise rates to cover upgrades and hurt large commercial energy customers.
Petersen also said the moratorium's ratepayer clause duplicates other sections of state law that require regulators to determine any new power plant won't burden ratepayers. New nuclear plants would still have to meet that standard, he said.
Minority Democrats railed against the bill during a brief floor debate. Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison urged lawmakers to consider the damage that Japan suffered following meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011. She said the Legislature should promote sun, water and wind power as alternatives to coal.
"The way forward is not nuclear power," Taylor said. "What are our kids going to say in 10 years when we've done nothing to address the crisis of coal? That we went back to nuclear? Are you kidding me?"
Petersen pushed back, noting that the bill doesn't take away any renewable energy sources and jump-starts a discussion about nuclear.
Lawmakers have been trying to lift the moratorium for years. 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.
Wisconsin is currently home to only one operational nuclear power plant. It's located near Two Rivers on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Petersen told reporters he hasn't heard of any utilities looking to build a new nuclear plant.
A number of union chapters covering engineers, pipefitters and construction workers as well as Alliant Energy, the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, all have registered in support of the bill, according to state Government Accountability Board records.
The Citizens Utility Board, a ratepayer advocacy group, and environmental groups Clean Wisconsin, the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters all have registered in opposition.