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Nuclear power: Evergreen State’s climate answer?

A new bill may mean a boon for nuclear power in Washington. Credit: 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.

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