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Caldwell: Nuclear vision needn’t be clouded

Sun., March 20, 2011

The agonizing struggle of the Japanese to avoid further catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex necessarily has many rethinking the rethinking about nuclear energy’s future.

Many hoped fission would be a cost-effective alternative to combustion that, no matter how “clean,” produces carbon dioxide, the primary cause of man-made global warming. President Barack Obama, like George W. Bush before him, is prepared to backstop loans for new plants with billions of dollars in federal guarantees.

Thursday, Obama ordered a safety review of the 104 nuclear facilities in the United States. But in his brief comments he did not back away from a commitment to revive the industry, which has not broken ground on a new plant since the 1979 Three-Mile Island accident.


Think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were financial disasters? Consider the potential implosion of a Nukie Moe.

Reactor design has leaped ahead several generations since the aged General Electric-made Fukushima units shattered by the earthquake and tsunami just as they neared decommissioning. Newer versions shut themselves down in an emergency.

In the Northwest, the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford has been a reliable source for about 10 percent of the electricity consumed in Washington, at an average cost of roughly 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. It, too, is a GE reactor, but one 10 years younger than those at Fukushima. The backup cooling systems are far more robust.

And a comparable coal-fired generator would have coughed 8 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere over the 27-year period Columbia Station has operated.

But the unit was licensed for 40 years of operation in 1983. The public utilities that own the plant say they will apply for a 20-year extension, pushing its decommissioning out to about 2043.

Now, it just so happens that Washington has a coal-fired plant capable of generating about the same amount of power as Columbia Station. The TransAlta-owned plant at Centralia has operated since the 1970s, burning coal from an adjacent mine until a switch to supplies from Wyoming and Montana in 2006.

An Avista subsidiary once operated that mine, and owned a piece of the generating plant.

Two weeks ago, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire announced a deal with TransAlta that will shut down one boiler in 2020, the second in 2025, with at least some of the generating capacity to be replaced with natural gas-burning units.

Portland General Electric agreed in December to shut down its coal-fired plant at Boardman in 2020.

The durability of Centralia and Boardman were not in question. They were just never going to be clean enough to satisfy environmentalists.

So, with the exception of electricity imported from Montana, coal will be out of the Northwest’s energy future in 2025.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council assumed as much in the 20-year regional power plan it released last month. The electricity no longer available from coal plants will be replaced by more natural gas plants, more wind, but mainly with conservation.

The four-state energy planning group did not consider a scenario that excluded the Columbia Generating Station.

Washington has been a proud and/or pained host to nuclear energy since the inception of plutonium production at Hanford during World War II. There is no reason whatsoever to be alarmist about the reactor in our midst today, but an application for its relicensing will be an opportunity for a thoughtful review of nuclear technology once promoted as a limitless source of clean energy.

That vision has been sabotaged by a few but ferocious failures.

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