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Should PUD Go Nuclear?

by Steven Friederich
The Daily World, August 25, 2009

The questions dwarfed the presentation during a workshop at the Grays Harbor PUD as commissioners consider whether to join a new statewide effort to build up to a dozen small-scale nuclear power plants.

More than 50 people attended the workshop Monday afternoon and got the rundown on pre-fabricated, modular 45-megawatt nuclear power units. Energy Northwest Vice President Jack Baker's presentation lasted about 25 minutes. What followed was an additional 90 minutes of back and forth with the audience. The dialogue often turned from skepticism and reluctance to those willing to give nuclear energy a try.

"I think it is short-term thinking to produce a substance (with) waste that is lethal for up to 140,000 years," said Candace Milne of Humptulips. "We've only been Homo Sapiens for 200,000 years. ...We are passing down from generation to generation this lethal stuff. This is immoral."

"I don't have any fears about a nuclear power plant," said Betty McClelland, who once worked for former Gov. Dixie Lee Ray and was on President Jimmy Carter's committee that looked into the 1979 nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

"I don't have any fears of leaking because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission learned its lesson with Three Mile Island," McClelland added. "I do trust that they know what they're doing and they learned their lessons and we're not about to have a nuclear disaster like they had in Russia."

In the end, the three PUD commissioners individually said they had not made up their minds as to whether the PUD should join the effort.

"It's just the beginning of the conversation," said Commissioner Tom Casey.

Baker predicts the partnership will end up being a public-private endeavor. He says there are nine public power utilities and private power companies showing serious interest in joining, but no one has signed up yet.

Energy Northwest is asking those who are interested to give $25,000 so the group can do further research. Baker says a feasibility study will cost $250,000 to $500,000, to be split among the interested parties. If the participants want to dip their toe further into the water, the permitting costs would range from $40 million to $50 million. The nuclear modules would cost $180 million per unit, he said. The whole project may be valued in the billions.

"I don't think either the commission as a whole or me personally is there yet," Commissioner Truman Seely said. "$25,000 isn't a lot. But it's the camel's nose under the tent. After that, here comes the rest of the camel. On the other hand, I'm not going to say 'no' out of hand either because it is very interesting technology. If we really think we may need some power, that might be the place to go."

For some of those attending, the two cooling towers up on Fuller Hill cast a shadow of doubt on the whole effort.

Energy Northwest was once known world over as the Washington Public Power Supply System, its acronym pronounced as "Whoops" after it defaulted on $2.25 billion worth of municipal bonds it had sold on Wall Street to help pay for nuclear power plants, including two at Satsop, that were mothballed before completion. Power customers are still paying for the default.

Jim Allen of Aberdeen noted that he fought side by side with Casey to kill the Satsop project.

"I'm not against the nuclear stuff, but I'm pretty surprised to hear that Tom is bringing this up," Allen said.

Allen says his protests were always about "the waste, the absolutely crapped up waste" of tax dollars involved. He said the commissioners "better not be getting us into an open-ended thing where we keep shoveling money. I think we learned our lesson there."

Baker said the nuclear modules would be pre-fabricated and then shipped by rail or truck to a site likely on Energy Northwest property on the Hanford Reservation near the Tri-Cities. Prefabrication would cut down on the cost overruns and change orders that plagued the old "Whoops" program, he said.

"This is interesting because I grew up here in the '70s and knew people who worked out at Satsop," said Commissioner Russ Skolrood, who is in his first year in office. "So I remember the waste. Hopefully we learned some lessons the first time around and we won't say, 'Here's an open checkbook, go for it.' That's not my personality. ... In the end, I think I'll have more discussion before deciding anything."

Baker noted that if Energy Northwest got involved, it would be the first in the country to install the commercial product, although the U.S. Navy has used small-scale nuclear power plants on submarines and other vessels for decades.

The group is considering using a model by NuScale, from technology developed by Oregon State University. But he said technology by Mitsubishi, BMW and Westinghouse will also be considered.

If Energy Northwest were to move forward, it'll be 10 years or so before anything is constructed, Baker said.

"It's a trade off between the economy, the environment and energy," Baker said. "No one issue should dominate the discussion, they should all be there."

MaryAnn Schallert of Ocean Shores said the economy should be the factor the PUD commissioners consider most.

"I wish we were growing," she said. "I wish we had industry knocking on our door wanting to use more power. But why in the world would Grays Harbor County need more power?"

"I'm really not for nuclear power," added Ann Stewart of Montesano. "I want to know the worst-case scenario for these smaller nuke plants. You say they're safe, but I don't believe everything I could hear. What could happen during an earthquake or a terrorist attack? Could there be radiation? How far? I'd like to know this."

Baker said the facility would withstand a 9.0 earthquake, maybe higher, and would be located underground to avoid terrorist attacks.

He said the waste — fuel assembles that are dry with no liquid in them — would likely be stored on-site, put into steel barrels and then concrete containers. That's what happens at the current nuclear plant at Hanford.

"Waste is waste and you can't guarantee me it won't leak," one man in the audience stated with certainty.

"I can almost guarantee you," Baker replied, noting a container by a nuclear power plant has never leaked. Baker said the man was probably confusing the leaky barrels that came from the 1940s and 1950s during nuclear research at the Hanford site. Baker said the only challenge in dealing with the waste is if someone came on site and tried to steel one of the 50-ton containers. But for that, he said, "We have guards that can shoot you."

Steven Friederich
Should PUD Go Nuclear?
The Daily World, August 25, 2009

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