Nuclear energy is here to stay

The Columbia Generating Station in Richland: cause for controversy Credit: Credit: Northwest Power and Conservation Council

Editor's Note: This guest opinion comes in response to Crosscut's August 20 story about a recent briefing about Seattle City Light's use of nuclear power before the Seattle City Council Energy Committee.

Nuclear energy is here to stay.

Arguments about eliminating nuclear generation from the Northwest, national or world energy mix make about as much sense as arguing that climate change isn’t real or happening. It’s an argument that is 40 years past its prime, if it ever had a prime to begin with.

Nuclear energy safely provides about 19 percent of the country’s electricity — and has been doing so for a long, long time. Columbia Generating Station, located north of Richland, Wash., produces more than eight percent of the energy generated in Washington and accounts for 12 percent of Bonneville Power Administration’s firm energy.

Columbia recently set two records for energy generation: in 2012 and 2013, it’s 28th and 29th years of operation. As a carbon-free source of energy, each year the electricity from Columbia prevents about 4.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, based on the Northwest energy mix.

Energy Northwest employs 1,100 highly skilled professionals, more than 460 of them proud members of organized labor. These are the exact type of family wage jobs state leaders want to attract and maintain here.

On the other side of the discussion, you have folks whose minds were made up sometime in the late 1970s — they don’t like nuclear energy. They ignore facts, deny current climate and economic realities and use inflammatory language to scare people to their side. Hence the constant reference to Hanford. Columbia sits on land leased to us by the Department of Energy. Other than simple geography, there is no connection.

Hanford is defense-related nuclear. We are commercial nuclear energy. Completely different. Unfortunately, even journalists fall for this word trickery.

The discussions about “nuclear waste” similarly confuse. While Hanford’s defense-related waste from plutonium production can take the form of liquid sludge, the used nuclear fuel from commercial energy plants like Columbia remains in solid form. The fuel comes to us as ceramic pellets, contained within zirc-alloy fuel rods. That’s exactly how it leaves the reactor six years later — as a solid.

Long-term storage is in 180-ton steel and concrete dry casks rated against all forms of natural disasters. In short, the environment is protected. In fact, the recently completed NRC environmental impact statement on spent fuel storage, both in pools and dry casks, affirmed their robust ability to mitigate any human or environmental impacts.

While we can all agree that a permanent, national repository is ultimately the best solution for long-term storage of used nuclear fuel, advocating no new nuclear energy development until we get one is nothing more than a red herring designed to end the discussion.

Ascribing the term “watchdog” to the anti-nuclear energy activists bestows on them respectability not earned, based on the record thus far. That they would be provided an opportunity to present their misrepresentations to a duly-elected body — without rebuttal — is an insult to 1,100 hard-working Washington residents and their families; in fact, to anyone interested in the democratic process.

The Crosscut article simply says we “weren’t at the meeting.” It would be more accurate to say we weren’t wanted at the meeting and, after requesting an invite, weren’t invited, likely because pesky facts would get in the way. Our absence led to the unique exchange where the committee chair asked an anti-nuclear activist to explain Energy Northwest and its purpose. Priceless.

The activist didn’t mention that Energy Northwest is a not-for-profit agency created to aggregate the electricity needs and resources of public power utilities, many of which serve sparsely-populated rural areas throughout our state. That would have been awkward, given the committee chair’s previous comments that the meeting was, in part, about placing the interests of people above profits.

This is a new age. Environmentalists, President Obama, Gov. Inslee, informed legislators, the United Nations and business leaders understand the complexities of climate change and the need for development of carbon-free, full-time electricity. Around the world, leaders have come to view nuclear energy as a way to provide developing nations with a higher standard of living while not exacerbating climate change.

Renewables, such as wind and solar, are an important piece of the mix. Energy  Northwest should know. We own and operate such facilities and are looking to develop more. But expecting baseload sources to be replaced by intermittent sources that operate 25-30 percent of the time is unrealistic without a back-up fossil source, such as carbon-emitting natural gas. It’s a non-solution.

Innovative Northwest companies such as NuScale and TerraPower are leading the way in developing advanced nuclear energy technology, which takes a safe form of energy generation and makes it safer.

Students at universities around the Northwest are enthusiastically looking to be part of the next generation of nuclear energy generation.

Those at the committee meeting should stand and applaud. But they won’t. Because in the end it’s not about safety, or cost, or climate change or what’s best for Northwest ratepayers. Ultimately, it’s about validating a fear-driven, anti-nuclear ideology.

Nuclear energy is a forward-looking discussion. Crosscut's article, and the anti-nuclear energy activists featured in it, are stuck in the past.

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