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Commentaries and editorials

A Time for Being Reasonable, Flexible

by John Webster, editorial board
The Spokesman Review, January 31, 2001

Skepticism left over from the WPPSS fiasco is alive and well,
casting a shadow over the current power shortage.

The CEO of Energy Northwest touched a high-voltage wire the other day. Vic Parrish said this would be a good time for the region to study the possibility of completing an unfinished nuclear plant near Hanford, to help relieve the power shortage.

Zap! Within hours, the remark was front page news and Parrish was backpedaling. There is no plan to finish the old nuke, he said -- nor is he promoting the idea. He simply felt it's worthwhile to look at the fact that "there remains an option to complete a large generating resource in the Northwest."

He's right. The option exists.

The instantaneous controversy that his mild observation provoked tells us a lot -- about how the Northwest came to have a power shortage and about the challenges we'll have to overcome to avoid California's fate.

Energy Northwest used to be known as the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS. "Whoops" attempted to construct five nuclear power plants. Four were abandoned, following tremendous scandals and a bond default that rocked Wall Street. In response, the Northwest chose to meet its power needs with aggressive conservation measures and Congress created an agency, the Northwest Power Planning Council, whose job includes making sure the region never again launches a boondoggle based on inaccurate power-need projections.

What lingered, along with those half-finished nukes at Hanford and Satsop, is a preference for conservation and a suspicion of large public power projects, especially nuclear ones.

This will affect the way we resolve the current power shortage.

Energy Northwest does have a respectable story to tell. The one nuclear plant that it completed has become a success. Aggressive reforms and quality controls have lowered the cost of the plant's power -- now very much in demand -- and improved its reliability. For details, visit on the Internet.

WNP-1, a twin of the successfully operating WNP-2, is two-thirds finished. However, there are good reasons to question the resumption of WNP-1, whose technology is 20 years old. Newer, accident-resistant reactor designs are available but even those haven't caught on. A spent-fuel repository still does not exist. The old scandals involving quality control in construction of WPPSS plants are not reassuring. No one, so far, has volunteered to pay the estimated $4 billion completion cost. As much as we could use the 1,300 megawatts, a single large plant with built-in opposition is not as attractive as several smaller plants with better odds.

For example, this month Energy Northwest sold part of its old Satsop nuke site to a company that plans to build a 630-megawatt natural gas turbine complex there. If all goes well, the complex will come on line in 2004.

The Northwest will need a number of medium-sized plants like that turbine project. It will have to find not only the economic justification for private investors to build them but also the political will. Our region acquired its skepticism honorably. But we can't afford to let skepticism short-circuit our future.

John Webster, for the Editorial Board
A Time for Being Reasonable, Flexible
Spokesman Review, January 31, 2001

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