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Warming up to Nuclear Power

by Kate Riley
Seattle Times, June 3, 2007

Craig Pridemore was a University of Washington student when he started his career influencing public policy. He and his friends made a road trip to Richland in the early 1980s to protest planned construction of five nuclear-power plants.

Now, the Vancouver state senator, who remains an environmentalist and successfully sponsored legislation this session to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, reluctantly concedes nuclear power might need to play a role in the monumental task of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States he said so in testimony before a state House committee.

He's not the only one. U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, who has been driving a Prius and talking about global climate change since before it was fashionable, also agrees that nuclear power might need to be part of the solution to curb greenhouse-gas emissions while managing new demand.

"Global warming is such a titanic challenge, all of us have to check our prejudices at the door," said Inslee. He has just finished a book, "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Revolution," that will be published by Island Press this fall.

Neither Pridemore nor Inslee is enthusiastic about the prospect of an expansion of nuclear power which accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity because it has other problems. Though nuclear plants don't emit greenhouse gases, disposal of the radioactive waste stream is a challenge.

But the challenge of climate change is so daunting that it is already causing major policy reprioritization, whether federal, state or household. Gov. Chris Gregoire recently set ambitious goals, starting with reducing the state's greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels within 13 years. A high-powered stakeholders group, including utility representatives, industry executives and environmentalists, has begun meeting to figure out how the state will get there.

So far, the governor has taken a cautiously open-minded tack on a Tri-City Industrial Development Council (TRIDEC) proposal that, if successful, could expand nuclear activities in the state.

The community in southeastern Washington is among 13 candidates for the Department of Energy's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program. TRIDEC, along with other community organizations, including the operator of the state's lone nuclear-power reactor in Richland, has proposed the community be part of a program to reprocess spent commercial nuclear fuel and recycle it, and also be the site of a new research reactor. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell also are in a wait-and-see mode.

Such open-mindedness about nuclear power borders on heresy among many environmental organizations, especially in the Northwest, which has plenty of negative nuclear baggage.

First, there was the notoriety of the Washington Public Power Supply System default on $2.25 billion in bonds in 1983. Hugely overestimated need for power and the large capital cost of five planned nuclear-power reactors contributed to the breathtaking default a record for any public agency at the time. Though Washington state was not involved in the project, its bond rating fell by association. Only one reactor was completed in Richland and is still operated by the agency, since renamed Energy Northwest.

Second, there is the wince-evoking legacy of five decades worth of nuclear defense production and inept disposal of waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the elbow of the Columbia River. The last defense-production reactor was shut down in 1989, but the costly cleanup is expected to take decades.

Then there is the muscle of the Northwest environmental community, which has tended to use both the former and the latter episodes to argue against anything nuclear.

"Political feeling may be more raw in the Northwest because of the failure to build those four nuclear plants," says Rudi Bertschi, who also actively opposed nuclear construction in the early 1980s. He later served as chairman of the Energy Northwest board and helped play a role in the agency's turnaround. "That was very traumatic for a lot of people."

An economist and energy consultant, Bertschi says he's "agnostic" about whether new nuclear plants should be built, saying it will depend on the costs government associates with carbon emissions. "A carbon tax would definitely change the economic formula," he said.

Nuclear technology fell so out of favor locally, the University of Washington terminated its nuclear-engineering department in 1992 for lack of student interest.

But now the conversation is changing. Environmentalists acknowledging nuclear might have a role in combating climate change are becoming, if not common, much less rare.

Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore has been the most vocal. The organization was founded to oppose nuclear weapons and warfare.

"... I think we made the mistake early on of lumping the peaceful use of nuclear in with the war-like use of nuclear," Moore said in a recent interview with E&ETV. "And I've come to realize that it doesn't make sense to ban the beneficial use of technology just because that technology can be used for evil."

Greenpeace remains fervently anti-nuclear, promoting instead an expansion of renewable energy and energy conservation. From its Web page: "Greenpeace has always fought and will continue to fight vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants."

Moore and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman are co-chairs of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which supports nuclear as a clean-emissions energy source. Although some environmentalists denounce Moore, others with respectable environmental credentials are joining him in pushing nuclear to be considered as part of the solution. Among them are James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which suggests Earth is a superorganism, and a member of Environmentalists for Nuclear Power; and Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Guns, Germs and Steel."

Worldwide, more countries are embracing nuclear. France gets 78 percent of its power from nuclear and never has had an accident; all of Europe gets about 32 percent.

The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its fourth assessment report released May 4, included nuclear as a potential part of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Last month, finance ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized countries, including Britain, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United States, announced their support for nuclear power as a partial solution to global warming and easing dependence on fossil fuels. Also in April, the United States and Japan signed an agreement to conduct joint research on nuclear power, which includes the GNEP proposal.

The one serious U.S. nuclear accident, at Three Mile Island in 1979 (causing no injuries or death), triggered a safety revolution that led in 2006 to a median plant safety record of only 0.12 industrial accidents per 200,000 worker-hours, a record low, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Back in the Northwest, it will be interesting to see how this debate plays out, especially given the crunch between energy demand growing with population and the legal challenges to the Northwest's electricity mainstay hydropower.

About 60 percent of Washington's energy comes from the 31-dam federal hydro system, but four dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington are under the jurisdiction of a federal judge. Environmentalists have prevailed in federal courts to press U.S. agencies to do more to restore endangered salmon runs affected by the Snake dams. Federal District Court Judge James Redden has said if the agencies don't satisfy his concerns, he might order the dams breached. Together, the four represent about 1,000 megawatts of power enough to keep the lights on in Seattle.

The same organizations that support dam breaching, including the Northwest Energy Coalition, successfully proposed Initiative 937, which requires most utilities to have at least 15 percent of their energy portfolio be produced by non-hydro renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. Also backed passionately by Inslee, the new law encourages energy conservation to lessen the need for new polluting power sources, which will help buy some time.

But many in the Northwest are skeptical of the changes going forward. Hydropower, which is created by letting water run through turbines, is particularly suited to "shape" or balance the ups and downs of wind power. The wind doesn't always blow, after all.

That will mean, eventually, power plants with more-controllable energy production will be needed to fill in the power need when the wind doesn't blow. And given passage of Sen. Pridemore's bill that essentially eliminates the possibility of any new coal plants, that means new natural gas plants or something that burns cleaner like, possibly, nuclear power.

Nuclear power has some major drawbacks. It is expensive and what to do with the waste stream remains an open, politically charged question. Energy Northwest, like other commercial reactor operators across the nation, has years worth of spent nuclear fuel intended for permanent disposal at the U.S. Department of Energy Yucca Mountain Repository that is years past opening. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., intends to kill the repository in his state and, with his clout as Senate majority leader, just might be successful.

Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership proposal would reverse a more than 30-year-old U.S. policy decision and begin recycling spent nuclear fuels with "proliferation-resistant" technologies. The plan could entail spent nuclear fuel being shipped to Hanford from sites around the country for reprocessing and recycling, as well as a new power reactor.

At a public Energy Department siting hearing in Pasco in March, there was a lot of activist muscle memory in the room that drew more than 300 people. Many of the old guard in the community of Cold Warriors argued they had the expertise to help the nation reduce existing waste through the recycling mission and advance a new generation of safe nuclear power. Anti-nuclear activists, including Heart of America Northwest, raised the specter of Energy Department's indisputably atrocious record of defense-waste disposal from years ago. Clean up the mess before you add more, they argue.

There is some truth and reason on both sides. But GNEP might not even survive the next presidential election.

Inslee, who says he hasn't yet studied GNEP enough to have a position, has an important message for everyone, including polluters and environmentalists like himself: "We are all going to have to get rid of our knee jerks."

This is a shrewder world where climate change is a reality and humans are considering how to minimize their role in it. The solutions need to be more carefully pragmatic and less reflexively ideological.

Related Pages:
Casey Wants Payments to Have a Purpose by Jordan Kline, Daily World, 2/27/7

Kate Riley appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.
Warming up to Nuclear Power
Seattle Times, June 3, 2007

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