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Monuments to Folly?

by Daniel Jack Chasan
The Oregonian, March 19, 2000

The four lower Snake River dams and the subsidies they represent may be in the same class as the Northwest's now-discredited vision of inexpensive and widespread nuclear power

Driving down the Washington side of the Columbia River near Kalama, you see the concrete cooling tower of the Trojan nuclear power plant rising above the trees like a cathedral spire in a distant European town. OK, it's not exactly Chartres, but its stark, graceful shape dominates this corner of the landscape, and, like a Gothic tower, it leads the eye upward to the leaden sky.

A lot of people associate nuclear plants, like cathedrals, with forces that transcend the known physical world. "The force was wholly new," historian Henry Adams wrote in his classic 1918 autobiography, "The Education of Henry Adams." The first reactors and nuclear bombs still lay some 25 years in the future, but X-rays and radium had been discovered just before the turn of the last century. When we began our relationship with radiation, the aging Adams felt that we had reached a watershed. "The rays . . . were occult, supersensual, irrational," he wrote. "They were a revelation of mysterious energy."

Indeed. A lot of people still view ionizing radiation that way, albeit without the messianic overtones. But there isn't anything spiritual about that scene above the Columbia. Closer up, you see the weather-stained details of the concrete looming above the bright water, and the containment dome, empty now.

As we enter the new millennium, the tower stands as a monument to an old, failed technology -- and a reminder that if we decide to breach the four lower Snake River hydroelectric dams to save wild salmon runs, it won't be the first time we have decided that kilowatts aren't worth the price.

Should we continue trading fish for kilowatts on the lower Snake? Should we continue to sustain a way of life for farmers, ranchers, barge operators and others at taxpayers' expense. In other words, should we cling to business as usual or should we put the dams on a shelf with our other regional monuments to obsolete thinking: the abandoned cooling towers at the old Trojan Nuclear Plant and a ghostly nuclear site in Southwest Washington. Those towers once seemed to be icons of a high-tech future.

If nuclear plants had really produced power "too cheap to meter," as boosters originally hoped, you'd probably see those cooling towers sprouting up across the American landscape like golden arches at new freeway interchanges, waste disposal problems or not. But you don't see them, any more than you see the region building new dams.

What went wrong? Some people think nuclear power is an inherently bad idea. Others think it's a good one that's been victimized by irrational public fears. Either way, it obviously hasn't failed in a physical sense. It generates electricity all over this country, a good deal of Europe and parts of Asia. It operates reliably on nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines all over the world.

But in this country, as a commercial technology, it has failed to generate power at a competitive price. No American utility has signed up for a new nuclear plant since the days of disco. Despite public fears of radiation leaks, the still-unsolved problems of waste disposal and the unsettling prospect of terrorists getting their hands on fissionable materials, cost has doomed the American nuclear power industry. We have other ways to generate power, we build nukes too inefficiently, and it's just too expensive.

The stained cooling tower at Rainier is not the Northwest's only monument to that particular abandoned dream. About 70 miles northwest, at Satsop, two more cooling towers stand abandoned on a hill overlooking Washington 12, east of Grays Harbor. In clear weather, they loom almost white above the evergreens. On a rainy day, they lurk like industrial apparitions in the clouds. Last year, when a magnitude-5.1 earthquake hit Washington, no one seemed to remember that its epicenter, at Satsop, was supposed to have been the site of two functioning nuclear plants.

Those two towers evoke not only the old technological pipe dream but also an epic financial failure, a regional disaster that seemed to rival Mount St. Helens: implosion of the old WPPSS nuclear construction scheme. You can think of them as chimneys up which billions of dollars once vanished into thin air. "WPPSS" stood for the Washington Public Power Supply System. It was always pronounced "whoops," as if the speaker had just dropped something.

(How did people choose such names? Why "Trojan?" Hadn't anyone read the Iliad? Didn't anyone know the story of the wooden horse brought inside the gates of Troy by an unsuspecting populace and Greek soldiers slipping out in the dead of night to seal the city's doom?)

People who've moved to the Northwest since the 1980s -- and you know who you are -- may not know much about WPPSS. But guess what? Many of us are paying for it.

People talk about all the money the Bonneville Power Administration, the Portland-based agency that transmits and markets power from the federal government's Columbia River dams, spends to preserve and restore wild salmon runs. It's a lot of money. And most of it, obviously, has been wasted. But in round numbers, with an annual budget of $2.3 billion, the BPA spends only about $252 million a year on fish and wildlife. It spends $299.1 million and is about to spend more than $300 million a year to retire its WPPSS debt.

Without that steady drain, there would be more for salmon -- or to give investor-owned utilities some of the financial breaks they're currently requesting from Bonneville; or just to lower the BPA's wholesale power rate. Dream on.

In the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s, Bonneville helped lure dozens of Oregon, Washington and neighboring utilities into a scheme to help WPPSS build five big nuclear plants. BPA guaranteed most of the bonds for the first three plants and twisted arms to get reluctant utilities signed up for the last two. (The city of Bandon was persuaded to invest in plants 4 and 5 by "the not very subtle threat of blackouts," the mayor said later in an affidavit.)

Those five plants incorporated three separate designs. They were being built by three different architecture-engineering firms and dozens of different contractors. WPPSS itself had never built a nuclear plant before. Four of the five plants -- the two at Satsop and two at Hanford -- were abandoned in midstream. When WPPSS "terminated" construction of 4 and 5, it touched off the largest municipal default in American financial history.

These reactors were built to sustain an illusion that this region didn't have to make choices. There'd be plenty of power for the all-electric houses and the aluminum smelters and the irrigation pumps; no one would be left out.

And we wouldn't have to make choices about salmon, either. We could destroy their habitat with impunity, because we could always make plenty of them in hatcheries. This, too, was an illusion -- as the recent federal listings of the fading Columbia River, coastal and Puget Sound salmon species make clear.

Some people knew or suspected it was illusory all along. In 1917, John N. Cobb, who would soon become the first director of the University of Washington's college of fisheries, described "an almost idolatrous faith in the efficacy of artificial culture of fish for replenishing the ravages of man," and warned that "nothing has done more harm than the prevalence of such an idea."

But the faith has persisted. Some 77 years later, University of Washington fisheries and zoology professor James R. Karr wrote, "Worst of all, hatcheries lull people into thinking that the causes of fishery declines have been 'fixed' when, in fact, they have not. Yet the public pressure to maintain hatcheries persists."

It has persisted for a reason. In a society that's wanted to avoid making choices, hatcheries have been the key to avoidance. "Fish culture became the only way that Western fish and game commissions saw to override the onslaught of over-harvest and habitat degradation," Jim Lichatowich, chairman of the Independent Scientific Advisory Board for the Columbia River, writes in his new book, "Salmon Without Rivers." "Hatcheries offered a ready alternative to strict regulations and an easy way to avoid confrontation with irrigators, timber companies and polluters."

And, of course, the 100-odd hatcheries in the Columbia Basin staved off a confrontation with dam builders, although when the first big dams went up on the Columbia, people knew pretty well what they were getting into.

"There is real fear that the (Bonneville) dam will just about abolish the $10 million-a-year Columbia River salmon industry," wrote Jim Marshall in a 1937 issue of Collier's magazine, a year before Bonneville was completed. But, as Marshall paraphrased the prevailing attitude, "If the salmon cease to run -- well, that'll be just too bad, but, after all, it's only $10 million a year! What's that trifle in these days of billions?"

The first great dams are monuments to a different sort of illusion: that the river would produce more power than the Northwest could ever use. "Early critics of the dam construction program referred to Bonneville as 'a dam of doubt,' " writes E. Kimbark MacColl, a Portland historian.

Critics wondered whether this "vast amount of hydroelectricity" would ever be sold, he writes. "Generators would surely rust, spillways would crumble, wires never would be energized. The dams were even compared in obsolescence with the pyramids of Egypt," detractors said.

When the dams were being built, Oregon's future senator, Richard Neuberger, wrote that figuring out how to use all the power generated at Bonneville and Grand Coulee, which was completed in north-central Washington in 1941, "is the major economic problem confronting the Far West. If the enormous blocs of power to be generated at Bonneville and Grand Coulee lie wasted . . . the rest of the energy in the continent's greatest treasure-trove of hydroelectricity probably will not be developed during the lifetime of any man now living."

He needn't have worried.

When the nuclear plants were still gleams in the eyes of bond salesmen and engineers, it had become obvious the river didn't have enough generating capacity to go around. Ironically, the plants were being planned or built at roughly the time that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was finishing the lower Snake River dams -- putting the cabooses, if you will, on the Columbia River gravy train -- that Gov. John Kitzhaber and a lot of other people now argue should be breached in order to preserve the last remnants of Snake River wild salmon runs.

Opponents of breaching point to the dams' economic value. Ignore the fact that by providing subsidized water and transportation to farmers in Eastern Washington and Idaho, the government is supporting a lifestyle, preserving a certain kind of work that the free market won't sustain -- rather like sponsoring painters or poets. It may be a desirable thing to do, but it doesn't have much to do with the free market (any more than spending millions of dollars to provide fish for commercial gill-netters has much to do with the free market). Nevertheless, those subsidies add up. The lower Snake dams do produce economic benefits -- including about 5 percent of the region's electricity.

So what? Trojan produced economic benefits, too, and the unbuilt WPPSS plants would presumably have produced them. But keeping Trojan running or getting the WPPSS plants going would have been expensive. Public and private officials -- and the bond market -- ultimately decided the benefits weren't worth the costs.

Now, a lot of people say the benefits produced by those four lower Snake River dams aren't worth the cost. You can hardly argue that barging salmon around the intact dams has worked. And the idea of weighing costs against benefits is hardly unprecedented. Just look at those abandoned nuclear cooling towers. They stand for more than just technological failure and economic folly. They prove we can decide enough is enough -- we've done it before. Do we have the guts to do it again?

Daniel Jack Chasan has written on salmon and energy issues for Smithsonian, Defenders, Audubon, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Weekly and The Bullitt Foundation. He is the author of "The Fall of the House of WPPSS: A Brief History of the WPPSS Nuclear Fiasco."
Monuments to Folly?
The Oregonian, March 19, 2000

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