Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Column: Nuclear power is a solution that’s worthy of inclusion


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If Americans are to receive all of their electricity without coal and natural gas by 2035, they will need nuclear power.

Washington’s Clean Energy Transformation Act passed earlier this year by the Legislature leans heavily on renewable fuels, particularly wind and solar. It calls for electrical generation to be completely free from emitting greenhouses gases, such as CO2. Little is mentioned of nuclear, but it can play a major role in the years ahead, especially with newer technologies.

Today, coal and natural gas-fired turbines generate two-thirds of our nation’s electricity, the U.S. Energy Information Office reports. Hydro, wind, and solar – the most abundant renewables producing electricity today – add up to 16%. However, nuclear chips in 19%.

Part of the reason the nuclear option is overlooked is people’s fear of another reactor malfunction, such as occurred in Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986, and at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan, in 2011.

Currently, nuclear power comes from large plants like the Columbia River Generating Station located at Hanford, near Richland. It is Washington’s third largest electricity generating facility behind Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams and operating under a license that is up for renewal in 2043.

CRGS produces enough electricity to supply Seattle and some of its suburbs – 1.5 million households. However, similar projects have been decommissioned and demolished. For example, Oregon’s only nuclear plant, Trojan shut down in 1992.

So, why reconsider nuclear power?

Without nuclear, it will be extremely difficult to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Nuclear power doesn’t rely on sunshine or wind. Nor does it require augmentation by large battery systems such as those currently under development. Like hydropower, it can supplement wind and solar.

Nuclear power plants generate massive amounts of electricity on a small land footprint. Available land will grow increasingly scarce. The Columbia Generating Station encompasses 1,100 acres. By contrast Washington’s 1,725 wind turbines need 1.5 acres each or roughly 26,000 acres, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The new commercial nuclear technology is smaller. The advanced small modular nuclear reactor developed at Oregon State University was spun out to NuScale for commercial development. SMRs take up 1% of the space of a conventional reactor and each one produces 60 megawatts of power. When stacked together, the 12 could perform as one.

To make the reactors safer, NuScale has simplified the design. The first SMR is working its way through the licensing process and would be located at Idaho National Lab, in southeastern Idaho. It’s expected to be operational by 2023.

Staff from Energy Northwest is scheduled to operate the Idaho facility, and the utility is considering locating another at Hanford. One design under consideration by Energy Northwest would generate 700 megawatts, which is about half of the Columbian Generating Station output.

While SMR have a long road ahead, the prospects for providing greenhouse gas-free electricity must not be ignored nor given token consideration. Nuclear is a solution deserving inclusion.

Don Brunell is a business analyst and writer and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He can be contacted at TheBrunells@ msn.com.

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