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    Mini nuclear plants in WA's future?

    The Senate Energy Committee unanimously approved a task force that will study whether the state should add more nuclear-generated power to its energy mix.
    A new bill may mean a boon for nuclear power in Washington.

    A new bill may mean a boon for nuclear power in Washington. Andrea Kirkby

    A bipartisan recommendation to explore whether the state should consider more nuclear power is going to the full Washington Senate.

    On Tuesday, four Republicans and three Democrats on the Senate Energy Committee unanimously approved a bill that would create a task force to study whether the state should host more nuclear power. "It'l be an exciting task force to be on,"said the committee's chairman Sen.Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and the bill's sponsor.

    Ericksen is one of two Republican members of Gov. Jay Inslee's panel tasked with finding ways for Washington to trim carbon emissions, which have been linked to ocean acidification and the deaths of baby shellfish. That panel has split along party lines with two drastically different approaches on how to deal with the issue.

    One of Ericksen's proposals involves expanding nuclear power, or at least looking into the prospect. His bill gives the proposed nuclear panel (four Republican and four Democratic legislators ) until Dec.1 to make its recommendations. The bill limits that proposed panel to four meetings, two in Richland, home of the state's only nuclear reactor.

    This is the first carbon emissions proposal by either Democrats or Republicans to actually make it into bill form. Republicans also want to look at changing the targets for reducing Washington's carbon emissions that were set in 2008. Meanwhile, Democrats lean toward a statewide cap on carbon emissions, a cap-and-trade program and a push for low-carbon fuel standards — none of which has yet been introduced as bills or executive orders. (The low-carbon fuel standards could further entangle the long-deadlocked Republican-Democrat negotiations on a transportation package.)

    At a hearing last week, reaction to Ericksen's bill was mixed. But industry and some legislative leaders were bullish on the idea of exploring nuclear power.  "We believe the study of nuclear power for the replacement of fossil fuels is both appropriate and provides benefits," said Dale Atkinson, a vice president at Energy Northwest, which operates the Columbia Generating station, the state's only power-generating nuclear reactor.

    "It gives us an opportunity to educate consumers in our state about nuclear power," said Debbie Harris of the Franklin County Public Utility District. The Franklin PUD is one of the utilities that make up Energy Northwest. Sen.Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, serves on both the Senate Energy Committee and Energy Northwest's executive board.

    Energy Northwest and Tri-Cities leaders are interested in the possible future construction of small modular reactors. These are tiny, prefab reactors whose parts are manufactured in one location then transported to the reactor site for final assembly. The U.S. Department of Energy and NuScale Power LLC, a Corvallis, Ore. company interested in building small modular reactors, are studying the feasibility of this concept.

    A key hurdle to prefab reactors is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must approve their final design.

    Meanwhile, Nancy Hirsh, policy director of the Northwest Energy Coalition, said the task force should study whether nuclear power is actually cost-effective and green, rather than automatically assuming it is both. She wants the bill to outline what the task force should study, including environmental effects, security issues, costs and energy consumption. She referred the task force to a December 2013 in-depth economic study of the Columbia Generating Station by Portland-based McCullough Research.

    Committee member Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, had no objection to setting up a task force. But he cautioned that the federal government has not yet designated a repository for the nation's used nuclear fuel. A proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was killed because U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, opposes it.

    John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Tue, Jan 21, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yep, that Senator Ericksen, what a thinking man's guy. Hates, hates, hates Initiative 937 (requiring utilities to invest in new renewable energy resources) because it costs too much. Yet, he promote nuclear power - even though he knows that it is more expensive than any other resource. And, he sponsored this nuclear study bill because, he says, nuclear power is carbon free - yet only last year he was questioning whether humans burning fossil fuels is the cause of climate change. Or if there is climate change

    You go Doug! Please.


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

    I hate I-937 too. It is a complete boondoggle, and ought to be repealed.


    Posted Wed, Jan 22, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    Already the Senate seems out of touch. They should separate the study of fusion from fission. A new Lockheed-Martin fusion design may revolutionize power generation. Lockheed Martin Outlines Plans for Nuclear Fusion Reactor http://americansecurityproject.org/blog/2013/lockheed-martin-outlines-plans-for-nuclear-fusion-reactor/

    For more details, watch Google’s ‘Solve for X’ conference on this topic at https://plus.google.com/+SolveforX/posts/HsTGsEz3Zpv

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    If a real company actually makes a 100 mW fusion reactor, I'll change my opinion. Until then, I'm a non-believer.


    Posted Fri, Jan 24, 5:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    It's refreshing to see a bipartisan effort (albeit modest) to look at modular nuclear power systems. This emerging technology is promising and may have the greatest potential to replace coal as a major source of electricity. After many years of demagoguery and fear mongering it may be difficult to sell nuclear power, but its' nearly carbon-free profile is looking increasingly attractive.


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 7:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    There are three big issues with fission nukes. One is that world uranium reserves aren't all that plentiful, and as a result the environmental costs of mining uranium have risen a lot. Those impacts tend to be out of sight, out of mind because of where so much of the uranium comes from -- Africa.

    Second is that nuclear fission reactors are very inefficient at converting uranium to heat. The current reactors, last time I looked, were only 5% efficient, but there were realistic-sounding claims to quintuple that. I don't know how much progress there's been in the real world at implementing those claims. Even 25% is pretty low.

    Finally, we have the safety issues, which include operations (Chernobyl, Fukushima) and waste disposal. These costs tend not to get included in the various calculations. Engineers tend to "play economist" and assume all these difficulties away, which is why we must take engineers and other self-interested promoters with a significant degree of skepticism.

    The same skepticism must apply to claims surrounding fusion, where containment of the reaction is a gigantic issue. If it's true (a BIG "if") that a major player (Lockheed Martin) intends to build a 100 mW fusion reactor by 2017, then those claims will be put to the test. A workable, cost-effective fusion reactor would be a gigantic and historic leap forward, but we've been hearing claims about fusion for many decades.


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