Editor's note: This story has been updated to delete one reference to Seattle City Light as a "part owner" of Energy Northwest, which operates the Columbia Generating Station. City Light is a part of a board that manages Energy Northwest.
The polite fiction that there's nothing controversial about the fuel mix of the Emerald City's public utility, Seattle City Light, is getting a new poke in the eye. Watchdog groups, anxious to revisit operation of the region's sole nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station (CGS) on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, are looking to Seattle to alter the course of history and phase out nuclear once and for all.
Nuclear power represents 4.4 percent of City Light's fuel mix compared with hydro's 90 percent. Nuclear is a small part of the supply, which is generally very climate-friendly. But, in the eyes of critics, nuclear's small share makes it all the more dubious for City Light to feel it needs to use the Hanford-produced power at all. Chuck Johnson, Director of Washington/Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility Joint Task Force on Nuclear Power, one of the watchdog groups behind the effort to phase it out, says there is no need to "take a risk with an old faulty reactor on the Columbia River.”
Seattle City Light, a publicly owned utility, is one of 27 utilities that serves on the board that manages Energy Northwest, the owner of the plant. A separate 11-member executive board directly controls the Generating Station and any decisions about its operations and future; the executive board includes five Energy Northwest board members and three outside directors selected by the full Energy Northwest board. (City Light does not have a representative on the executive board.)
Energy Northwest was originally formed in the 1950s, under the name of the Washington Public Power Supply System, to ensure that the Pacific Northwest had a constant source of electricity. The Columbia plant is the only completed in what became a massive effort by Northwest public utilities to build five plants in the blunder that, drawing on the agency’s acronym, WPPSS, became known as “whoops.” The zealous over commitment to nuclear brought about a municipal bond failure a US News report of last year still listed as among the five largest in US history.
At a briefing before the City Council's Energy Committee last week, Heart of America Northwest, Washington/Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and others asked the council to push City Light to phase out its nuclear power usage and replace it with renewables. The two organizations have been tracking Hanford, a highly contaminated radioactive waste site on the Columbia River, since the 1980s. The nuclear power plant has generated some 320,000 spent fuel rods containing long-lived radioactivity for which there is no permanent disposal. The Columbia Generating Station has operated since 1984.
In their efforts to decommission the commercial reactor, the watchdog groups hired Robert McCullough, an electric utility economist who helped expose the Enron rate hike scandal as an expert contractor for Snohomish PUD and California utilities. In his report, he found Washington ratepayers could save $1.7 billion over the next 17 years throught the purchase of replacement energy rather than continuing to operate the Columbia Generating Station. McCullough says, “It's a little preposterous that the City of Seattle is the partial owner of a nuclear plant. They led the battle against nuclear power in the mid-1970s.”
The City Council’s refusal to continue investing more in nuclear construction was a key factor in ending WPPSS’s plans for five reactors. “When Seattle said no back then,” says Heart of America Northwest's acting Director Peggy Maze Johnson, who was a lobbyist in Olympia at the time, “it was like a house of cards falling.” About that same time, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened and many in the environmental movement began to question the wisdom of nuclear power.The Washington Environmental Council filed suit to require City Light to produce an environmental impact statement on all proposed nuclear plants. But it dropped the suit after the utility came up with a study, Energy 1990, which examined ways to meet future power needs.
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