Nuclear power: Evergreen State's climate answer?

The state Senate backs a study of nuclear power generation as a possible way to deal with global warming.
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

Washington's Senate voted 34-to-15 Wednesday to create a task force that would study whether the state should host more nuclear power. The bill now goes to the House.

Twenty-five out of 26 Majority Coalition Caucus members and nine minority Democrats voted for the bill introduced by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. One "yes" vote was by majority coalition member Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who also serves on Energy Northwest's executive board. Energy Northwest owns and operates the 1,150-megawatt Columbia Generating Station near Richland, which is the Pacific Northwest's only power-producing nuclear reactor. Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, cast the sole maority coalition "nay' vote. 

The bill gives the proposed nuclear study panel — four Republican legislators and four Democratic legislators — until Dec.1 to make recommendations. The bill limits that proposed panel to four meetings with two to be held in Richland.

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.

"I'm not afraid of a study — a scientific study that gives us the pros and cons" of small modular reactors, said Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline.

However, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, grew up in New Jersey and was 12 years old when one of the two Three Mile Island reactors suffered a partial meltdown in 1979 in eastern Pennsylvania. "I would never put my children through that fear," Rolfes said. She also cited the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima reactor accidents. "We're lucky we have not had a major accident at Hanford," she said.

Hanford's biggest accident in the past 30 years was a 1997 non-radioactive chemical tank explosion in a former plutonium processing facility that spewed fumes that were inhaled by 11 workers. Hanford is a 586-square-mile federal site that is the most radiological and chemically contaminated spot in the Western Hemisphere. Almost all of its frequently troubled cleanup efforts are due to Cold War defunct plutonium-production reactors and plutonium-extraction plants. Energy Northwest's power-production reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, is also located on Hanford, but is a separate entity from the federal operation.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and a former U.S. Navy nuclear officer, said: "This can be done on a safe reliable manner."

Meanwhile, some Democrats, including Chase, mentioned concerns about Hanford's spotty nuclear clean-up track record. They noted Hanford's nuclear-waste-to-glass project that is 20 years behind schedule with a budget that has grown from $4 billion to $12.3 billion --with another increase to $12.7 billion reported this week. And they noted that the nation has no place to permanently store used nuclear fuel, including that from the Columbia Generating Station.

This bill has complicated origins, stemming from Gov. Jay Inslee's efforts to shrinking carbon emissions in Washington. A five-person climate change panel (two Republicans and two Democrats with Inslee as a fifth non-voting member) is almost irreconcilably split on what to do about carbon emissions, which are linked to global warming and ocean acidification. Acidification has begun to kill baby shellfish in commercial operations along Washington's coasts. Ericksen is on that panel.

Ericksen's bill 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 in the form of bills or executive orders.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 5:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Gee if only we had a model of state government involvement in public power development...oh wait.

http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file;_id=5482

Cameron

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 7:32 a.m. Inappropriate

The cost of decommissioning these plants is never included in what the public is told the cost will be, let alone the cost of their catastrophic failures. But just the capital costs of building one nuclear plant would pay for solar retrofitting 40 percent of the homes in Washington state and create thousands of jobs.

Silenus

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Actually, using EIA data, I'm pretty sure it would be cheaper to simply build solar and wind facilities than new nukes.

Take a look at page 10 of
http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/pdf/updated_capcost.pdf

There, it shows capital and operating costs for various types of power plants. Nuclear costs about $5.5K/kW to build and about $95/kW-yr to generate.

By contrast, Onshore wind costs abut $2K/kW to build and $40/kW-yr to generate.

Now, given that wind is fickle, you might wonder how to generate power when it doesn't blow. To accommodate that, add the costs for pumped storage. This is about $5K/kW to build and $18/kW-yr to operate.

Assuming you need the same pumped storage capacity as the wind portion, that totals to $7K/kW to build and $58/kW-yr to generate.

The up-front costs are higher than for nukes, but the operating costs are so much lower. And I doubt the operating costs published in this doc include general environmental costs.

The case for solar is similar but not quite as attractive as wind.

pragmatic

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm all for at least seriously exploring nuclear energy as a viable option (it's relatively inexpensive and even the French have bought into it), but before we go about spending billions on building new plants, where is there harm in first considering existent plants in Satsop that were never commissioned? Or is this going to be another "It's-only-taxpayer-money" production like we're get from the WSDOT on the Seattle Tunnel and the 520 bridge projects?

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

First, "Northwest Energy" is our old gang that can't shoot straight - WPPSS - doing business under a new name. These folks have already proven they couldn't manage a lemonade stand in August - tens of BILLIONS in sunk costs, debt payments, litigation expenses.

The other nuclear power plant in the NW is at Rainier, Oregon. The cooling tower has been dynamited, the plant decommissioned and abandoned. Rapidly increasing capital costs made the plant too expensive to operate. All that is left is a multi-BILLION dollar park. Oh, well..

The cost of new nuclear is estimated at 25 to 30 cents a kw WHOLESALE.

With a hydro base, plus wind, and growing solar, we do not need nuclear for our future.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 3:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, reality is so much weirder than anything you try to make up.

The MCC refuses to fund K->12 education but will galdly spend money planning for WHOOPS 2.0

This is the Rodney Tom Republican Majority Senate's top priority.

Yikes.

andy

Posted Thu, Feb 13, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Was there anything in the bill about preferentially disposing of the waste in the districts of the legislators who vote for this?i This is just a "Pork for Richland" bill.

Steve E.

Posted Sat, Feb 15, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Weatinghouse has just decided not to develop a small modular reactor. The reason stated was that there was no market for a small modular reactor.

Posted Sat, Feb 15, 9:28 p.m. Inappropriate

I think existing nuclear has proven unsafe and it produces unsafe, long-lived waste, but I do support efforts to develop different nuclear technologies that are safe. I think this is the sort of Manhattan Project we'd be wise to fund and proceed with, but for energy supply only, decoupled from weapons development, which I suspect is why nuclear energy became what it is today. Promising ideas are described in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_wave_reactor (this idea burns up existing waste) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK367T7h6ZY (used different fuel/low waste).

As a matter of safety, we need to move on some sort of carbon tax in the state to apply economic torque on our energy systems to eliminate greenhouse gas pollution. What we're doing now is slow motion disaster that will hurt us, and we should face up to it.

FWIW, here's a recent report on R&D; funding history from the Congressional Research Service. It indicates the R&D; on nuclear innovation has dropped while spending on fossil fuel has held steady. I think it's foolhardy to keep developing fossil fuel at the same time we're preparing to abandon that source of energy for our own safety.
https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS22858.pdf

Bentler

Posted Mon, Feb 17, 5:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Let's start with the economics - We did this once before, it was called WPPSS, the Washington Public Power Supply System. It became the largest public bond default in US history.

Let's look at the technology - we've had three different designs of nuclear reactors fail catastrophically. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukashima.

Let's look at the disposal - we have no long term high level waste storage solution and to do so will require the establishment of an institution that will for a minimum of 300 consecutive human generations protect that storage area from intrusion, either accidental or intentional.

Padruig

Posted Mon, Feb 17, 4:52 p.m. Inappropriate

What I'd propose has never been done as far as I know. If the idea is truthfully characterized, I think it would actually reduce waste-- "burn up" probably wasn't the best way to put it, but using existing waste more thoroughly and converting it to a more benign, shorter-lived form would help solve the waste problem.

This proposal would be to develop new methods that are fault tolerant and pose low heath threat if failure did occur-- not to invest in out of date, risky designs that have already proven unsafe at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Washington doesn't want that. But the word "nuclear" means other things and shouldn't be rejected without investigation.

Main point is that we need to face up to climate change and ocean acidification by transitioning out of fossil fuel, as it's already damaging our planet... best if it's in a way that pencils out and minimizes economic damage. Washington just happens to have a large population of capable people with the scientific background to help accomplish this societal imperative.

Bentler

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 7:18 p.m. Inappropriate

There shouldn't be any problem finding a way to take care of deadly waste for tens of thousands of years. after all, we're humans, we know everything, we can control nature, and we don't make mistakes.

Steve E.

Posted Wed, Feb 19, 6:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Here are a couple thoughtful articles that help inform this subject fyi:
-Will Thorium Save Us From Climate Change? http://goo.gl/lloaw6
-Renewable Power Tops Climate Change Solutions in Expert Survey http://goo.gl/Ezkxt3

Bentler

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »