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Nuclear Power: A risky wager for the Northwest

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

Editor’s Note: This guest opinion is part of an ongoing debate spurred by Crosscut’s August 20 story about Seattle City Light’s use of nuclear power.

Seattle City Light and its fellow publicly-owned utilities continue to operate a nuclear power plant of similar vintage and design as the three reactors that melted down in Japan in 2011. Now they want to double down with a new series of up to 12 “small modular reactors” at Hanford, their answer to the challenge of creating low-carbon electricity. That’s a risky bet and a surprising one. The previous wager on nuclear energy in the 1980s led to the largest bond default in U.S. history at the time.

Northwest ratepayers are still paying for three of the five nuclear power plants begun by publicly-owned utilities through the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, or “whoops”). That amounts to 35 percent of the Bonneville Power Administration’s annual expenses passed on to residential and business customers throughout our region. The one plant that was actually finished provides only 10 percent of Bonneville’s electricity.

Given the poor economics and reliability of nuclear projects in the Pacific Northwest it is imperative that citizens and utilities like Seattle City Light and its fellow board members of Energy Northwest — the former WPPSS was wisely renamed in 1999 — carefully assess the financial costs and safety risks associated with renewed development of nuclear power.

The NuScale small modular reactors touted by Energy Northwest for our region are not a revolutionary new design. They are, instead, smaller versions of the light water reactor technology most familiar to the nuclear power industry. The problem of how to permanently contain the highly dangerous plutonium waste, along with the radioactive cesium and strontium and other deadly by-products of nuclear fission, remains an unsolved “Achilles heel.” These reactors use standard enriched uranium fuel. The process of mining and milling that uranium has severely contaminated lands throughout North America, including the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.

At this stage in the design process, the NuScale engineers claim a couple of advantages over the Columbia Generating Station (the former WPPSS #2 reactor), a GE Boiling Water Reactor that Energy Northwest continues to operate on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation:

1. By suspending up to twelve. 45 megawatt reactors in a large, underground water tank with passive cooling systems, designers hope to avoid the vulnerability of the GE Boiling Water Reactors to a loss of coolant accident and resulting hydrogen explosions, which happened in Fukushima, Japan.

2. Its extremely hot spent fuel would be stored underwater below ground, unlike at the Columbia Generating Station, which has its spent fuel pool suspended six stories above ground, making it vulnerable to a massive release of radioactive material should the pool suddenly lose water.

3. NuScale officials claim that the standard model will be rated for up to .5 g (as in g-force) ground motion in an earthquake, unlike the Columbia Generating Station which was licensed in 1984 with a design basis of withstanding up to .25 g ground motion. (Note: US Geological Survey scientists have now revised their estimates for the area, citing a potential for .6 g ground motion in an earthquake on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.)

Nevertheless, even if you ignore the long-term waste storage issues and uranium mining wastes associated small modular reactors, and accept NuScale’s design safety claims, it is still premature to jump on the SMR bandwagon. In the first place, their design remains unproven. Despite receiving the commitment of $217 million in federal matching funds, NuScale recently announced it will delay submitting its design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until fall of 2016, delaying the approval process by a year. According to NuScale documents, the soonest an operating prototype could be up and running at the Idaho National Laboratory would be 2023.

Even more damaging to the future of small modular reactors are estimates of the actual price of building them. Throughout the world, sticker shock on construction of new full-sized nuclear power plant designs has slowed new purchases of reactors to a trickle. It will be even more challenging to keep costs down in smaller reactors, and overcome the economy of scale issue that has always argued for building commercial nuclear reactors big enough to recoup the expensive construction cost with large scale electricity production when finished.

NuScale claims that small reactors can overcome the higher per-kilowatt cost with mass production, an easing in regulation and redundant safety systems, due to the “inherently safe” design. In studies this past year by, researchers at the University of Vermont and Princeton, among others, estimate that the cost of creating the supply chain needed to manufacture small modular reactors at a competitive price would be as high as $90 billion. Without massive government subsidies, building small modular reactors would be financially unattractive to intelligent utility leadership. The argument that mass factory production of these reactors would lower the price collapses even further if errors in production make it necessary to recall and replace parts.

Given these uncertainties, it is shocking that Energy Northwest continues to place these experimental new nuclear plants at the center of its long-term energy strategies. We call on Seattle City Light and the other utility members of Energy Northwest to reverse this policy and focus instead on proven wind, solar and, above all, energy conservation strategies, which are affordable and non-polluting alternatives to carbon fuels.

Further, we ask Energy Northwest to acknowledge the inherently unsafe design of its existing reactor on the Columbia River. (Otherwise, why would it be considering a new design?) It is time to close the Columbia Generating Station until it can be shown to meet earthquake and other safety standards, and replace it with less expensive renewable energy alternatives.

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