Should we build new nuclear reactors in Washington?

Christie Todd Whitman Credit: Credit: John Stang

Could our state build reactors again more than 30 years after it suffered through the plagued construction of Washington Public Power Supply System Reactors Nos. 1, 2 and 3?

That's one question a legislative task force will consider. The eight-member task force met for the first time Wednesday in Olympia. It is supposed to have recommendations for the full Legislature by Dec.1 on such questions as whether to create new reactors either to supply power to the state or to export mini-reactors elsewhere.

"This is more to gather information on should we have a nuclear policy," said task force member Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip.

The task force emerged from Gov. Jay inslee's push to reduce greenhouse gases. Their build up in the atmosphere lowers the pH of the oceans and raises temperatures, which threatens the snowpacks that provide the state's water. Inslee has mainly pushed various ideas to tackle existing carbon emissions sources. GOP legislators to consider want non-carbon-emitting nuclear reactors to be part of the solution. Enough Democrats agree, leading to the formation of the task force.

Washington has one functioning reactor: the Columbia Generating Station just north of Richland which is owned and operated by Energy Northwest. The station was originally called WPPSS Reactor No. 2. WPSS tried to build five reactors at Richland and Satsop in the 1970s and 1980s. Only Reactor No. 2 was finished. The partially completed Reactors 1 and 3 are now big concrete hulks. Massive cost overruns led WPPSS to default on its construction bonds in the 1980s. It was the largest bond default in American history at the time.

WPPSS, a consortium of 27 state utilities, renamed itself Energy Northwest in the 1990s. It renamed Reactor No. 2 the Columbia Generating Station in an effort to shed its "Whoops" nickname. "We have a larger challenge in this state with this history," said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma and a task force member. "… There is going to be healthy skepticism because of the costs."

Construction of new nuclear reactors in the United States went on hiatus in the '80s. In recent years, the U.S. began building reactors again — two in Georgia, two in South Carolina and the revival of a long-dormant Tennessee Valley Authority project. The South Carolina and Georgia reactors are expected to be finished sometime from between 2016 and 2018. The U.S. currently has 104 power reactors; most are east of the Mississippi River.

A nationwide push to cut carbon emissions from power generators is a major factor in the renewed interest in nuclear power, according to Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair of the CASEnergy Coalition, an alliance exploring the revival of new nuclear power. Whitman, a former New Jersey governor, served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. She spoke to the task force Wednesday, and to Crosscut shortly afterward.

While alternatives such as wind and solar power are good, Whitman said they need a stable companion power source to smooth out their peaks and dips. At present, nuclear power provides 19 percent of the nation's electricity. Ideally, said Whitman, U.S. nuclear capacity should grow along with the nation's s population and industry so that it can continue to provide that 19 percent of the nation's power.

The cost overruns which plagued WPPSS are less likely to occur now, said Whitman, although she added that the current reactor projects in Georgia and South Carolina have had their budgetary ups and downs. The 104 reactors in operation represent more than 90 different designs, meaning that each construction project is typically a first-of-its-kind.

With today's four allowable reactor designs new reactors would have to follow conform to familiar construction plans, rather than being brainstormed from scratch. "It's not a learning process, a relearning process each time," Whitman said.

Construction of one of these reactors would likely take six to eight years and cost between $7 and $9 billion. Each project would create 3,000 to 5,000 construction jobs, with several hundred additional permanent jobs once the reactor goes on line.

Whitman said a new working reactor would produce electricity at $40 per megawatt. The Columbia Generating Station operates at 1,150 megawatts. Whitman noted that natural gas currently provides cheaper electricity, which will affect new reactor construction. Crosscut could not pin down an appropriate cost comparison of nuclear power to coal power, hydropower, solar and wind power.

While reactors don't produce carbon emissions, they do produce "spent fuel." Right now, almost every reactor stores its spent fuel on site because a proposed national nuclear fuel depository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain is stalled by opposition from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. Alternative sites might be considered, said Whitman, though she did not know where they are.

One proposal is to process spent fuel so it can be used again in the reactors. The technology exists; France and Japan already do reprocess their spent fuel. But Whitman noted that cost is a hurdle to adopting the practice stateside: mining new uranium is cheaper than processing the spent fuel for recycling.

Washington might also consider calling upon the nuclear expertise of the Tri-Cities to build 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.

The task force plans to visit the Columbia Generating Station and hold one or two a public meetings in Richland on Sept. 25 and Sept. 26. The task force is also thinking about visiting the NuScale operation in Corvallis.

Task force chair Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is also on the executive board of Energy Northwest. Sheldon does not believe this presents a conflict of interest because he he is an "outside" board member charged with representing ratepayers in Energy Northwest matters. Plus, he is only one of eight task force members.

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