For all of Washington state's history with nuclear issues, the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima power plant has provoked little discussion of similar concerns. That's largely because the state made almost a complete U-turn in the late 1970s and early 1980s, reversing plans for an aggressive nuclear energy construction program that was already well underway.
Seattlepi.com's Joel Connelly used his impressive grasp of regional political history this week (March 15) to discuss the citizens' movement in Skagit County that halted plans for a water's edge reactor that would have been right along a fault line. That was a prelude to the financial crash of the reactor construction program known as WPPSS (pronounced "Whoops").
It wasn't a complete collapse, though. The program managed to complete one reactor 10 miles north of Richland. A story Sunday (March 13) in the Tri City Herald quoted both Sen. Maria Cantwell and the Columbia Generating Station's chief nuclear officer talking about the safety of the design. "Our design and the way we operate the plant is safe for the public," said the nuclear officer, Brad Sawatzke. Reporter Annette Cary's article noted that Columbia and the Fukushima complex both use General Electric boiling water reactors but said Energy Northwest's facility near Richland "is more than a decade newer and with a design that has an improved and stronger containment dome."
The level of safety will likely be explored from a number of perspectives. Hanford Challenge and the World Affairs Council of Seattle will hold a March 25 event at the University of Washington, "Chernobyl 25 Years Later: Lessons Learned?" with Dr. Alexey Yablokov, councilor of the Russian Academy of Science (details here). Friends of the Earth pointed out on Monday (March 14) that documents it had obtained earlier revealed that Energy Northwest has shown interest in using the mixed oxide plutonium fuel that is causing some heightened concern at Fukushima's No. 3 reactor.
Oregon has even more distance from nuclear-generation activity, with the closure of its Trojan facility having been announced in 1993. A 2008 Oregonian article, noted on the paper's website recently, focused on the spent fuel rods remaining at the site, under guard.
Both Spencer Heinz, the writer of the 2008 Oregonian article, and Connelly said they were bringing up history to provide perspective for the future. As Connelly put it:
Why bring up "old" history? Because it is a not-so-distant mirror on "new" history.
The nuclear industry is with us still. It gets the blessing of President Barack Obama, despite the fact that he pulled the plug on using Nevada's Yucca Mountain to store "spent" but intensively radioactive fuel rods.
In his widely distributed column, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor Mark Trahant also brought up Yucca Mountain. Trahant argued well that it is arrogant to think we can be confident about storing spent nuclear material for thousands of years.
But underlining the point that the debate remains relevant to future decisions, one commenter, "sjenner," countered thoughtfully, asking:
5,000 years from now, will our distant great great ... grand children criticize us more if we did the best we can in dealing with nuclear waste, or for not trying to come up with a better solution than the alternative? Will they criticize us more for using energy sources that increase pollutants in the atmosphere and accelerate climate change, or for using an energy source that did not accelerate global warming?
One easily overlooked item from the Tri-City Herald on Wednesday (March 16) provides some hint of what could spark future debate for Washington state. Speaking to the Tri-City Development Council's annual meeting, Mark Reddemann, chief executive of Energy Northwest, predicted a rebound in public support for nuclear power. A poll done for the company before the earthquake and tsunami reportedly showed about 65 percent support statewide for a new nuclear power plant. Reddemann said the company is studying the possibility of constructing what the paper described as "small modular reactors, which would allow generation capacity to be added in increments to match growth."
Will the public be involved in the decision? Energy Northwest describes itself as a "Joint Operating Agency comprised of 28 member utilities," including Seattle City Light, the Snohomish County PUD, and Tacoma Public Utilities. Each of the five municipal utilities and 23 public utility districts has a seat on the board of directors.