In the 1970s, Washington’s public utilities embarked on an aggressive nuclear power building project managed by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). Unfortunately, the effort ultimately became known as “Whoops!”
WPPSS planned to construct five generating facilities in our state to meet future electricity demand. However, when the core of one of the reactors at Three Mile Island, Pa. nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown, support for nuclear power waned.
As a result of the Three Mile Island accident and the subsequent Chernobyl disaster in Russia, nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. all but ceased. Even though WPPSS eventually completed one of its five plants — that is still operating today — WPPSS could not repay $2.25 billion in construction bonds for two now-abandoned nuclear power plants. That default became the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history.
Then, after 16 years of service, Portland General Electric (PGE) decommissioned Oregon’s only nuclear power plant along the Columbia River near Longview and demolished it in 1993.
Fast-forward to 2010.
France is now the poster nation for nuclear power success.
More than three-fourths of France’s electricity comes from its 60 nuclear plants, and it is the world’s largest net exporter of power. It sends 18 percent of its total production to Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, and Germany. France’s electricity cost is among the lowest in Europe.
France has also made great strides in recycling nuclear waste. It reclaims the plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear fuel and uses it in new fuel elements. This not only provides energy, it reduces the volume of radioactive waste. In fact, the volume of waste generated by 20 years of electricity by a family of four is a glass cylinder the size of a cigarette lighter.
So where does that leave the United States?
With our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, traditional coal-fired power plants are losing public and political favor. In the process, support for nuclear power is growing.
A March Gallup Poll shows that 62 percent of Americans embrace nuclear power while only 33 percent oppose it. That is a dramatic change from 2001 when people were equally divided.
Fully half of all Americans support President Obama’s support for nuclear power and his recent call for first loan guarantees for new reactors.
If we are going to wean ourselves from foreign energy and rely more on electricity to power our cars, transit systems, homes and factories, we must have reliable electricity. Solar and wind power are clean but can’t produce a steady current. Solar doesn’t work at night, and wind turbines shut down when there is too much or too little wind.
To meet our nation’s energy needs, we must have an integrated power grid where nuclear, hydro, natural gas, biomass and clean coal plants supply electricity to support intermittent supplies from wind and solar.
In Washington, where just under 10 percent of our electricity comes from the Columbia generating station at Hanford, nuclear power is becoming increasingly important. Our hydro capacity is diminishing as fishery managers and the federal courts stop turbines on the Columbia, Snake and other salmon producing rivers.
In addition, there is pressure to remove the four lower Snake River dams that produce enough electricity to light and power the Seattle metro area. That would be counterproductive.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council concluded that replacing the power lost from removing the lower Snake River dams would require building hundreds of megawatts of fossil-fuel burning resources, probably natural gas. As a result, regional carbon emissions would increase by 3 million tons a year.
The good news is as the economic, technology and energy landscape changes, people and politicians are beginning to re-embrace nuclear power. That is a huge step toward “energy independence.”