Seattle City Light’s little nuclear share

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

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.

The renewable recommendations the watchdog groups made at the briefing last week were very similar to those made in 1990. Renewables — like wind, wave/tidal, biomass, solar and geothermal — not only can combat global warming but also can meet the region's growing energy needs, said Sara Patton with the NW Energy Coalition at the briefing. She also promoted energy efficiency, “a gold mine for new, clean, affordable energy.”

Energy Northwest, the consortium of state public utilities that manages the Columbia Generating Station nuclear facility, was not at the briefing, which was set up for the watchdog groups to voice their concerns, according to the office of City Council Energy Committee Chair Kshama Sawant. Nearly all of the groups' allegations were disputed by Energy Northwest spokesperson, Mike Paoli who watched a play-by play video of the briefing. The only point of agreement, said Paoli, was the fact that the nation still does not have a centralized fuel repository. “That's the only real issue that continues to challenge the industry,” said Paoli.

But he disputed comparisons of the Columbia Generating station to Fukushima, and statements about containment risks, seismic risks and cost. Energy Northwest commissioned its own economic assessment by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which concludes that operating the plant will result in a $1.6 billion savings to ratepayers through 2043.

At the briefing Sawant favored increasing the state's renewable portfolio and ensuring that energy efficiency and conservation measures are more easily available for all. She does not consider natural gas a good alternative. Energy Northwest and Bonneville Power, the federal agency behind the region's hydro-electric grid, concluded in a 2012 report, that while nuclear was the most cost-effective option, natural gas was the next most cost effective.

Nuclear and natural gas are often presented as clean options, Sawant said, when in fact they're fraught with problems from the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe to a host of environmental problems associated with fracking. “Why do we put up with those kinds of odds. Why don't we move entirely away from carbon, from nuclear and from natural gas toward genuine renewable energies?”

If that's to happen, she suggested, activists will need to fill council chambers to bring the message home to the city and Seattle City Light. “The owners of the nuclear reactor have no incentive to close it down. They're benefiting from it enormously just like the owners of Keystone XL Pipeline.”

The bet being waged by the watchdog groups — who've been lobbying city councils, power councils and state representatives over shuttering the Columbia Generating Station for years (especially post-Fukushima) and replacing it with renewables — is that liberal Seattle will rise above what PSR's Chuck Johnson calls “inertia” over nuclear. Then, they say, the city can live up to to its anti-nuke roots. 

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