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Mini nuclear plants in WA’s future?

Nuclear power could get a lift, though on a small scale. Credit: 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.

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