A bi-partisan joint Senate and House task force of the Washington legislature will study the feasibility of more nuclear power in the state.
Right now, there is only one nuclear plant operating in Washington, one located on the grounds of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and now operated by Energy Northwest. The plant is the only functional nuclear power facility borne from the failed Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) that still stands as the largest public bond default in U.S. history back in the 1980s.
WPPSS left several partially completed nuclear plants at Hanford and Satsop in Grays Harbor County.
Proponents of a re-examination of nuclear power realize they are up against the legacy of the nicknamed "whoops" failure and a legacy of contamination and problems elsewhere on the Hanford Reservation associated with nuclear weapons production that dates back to WWII.
"What we're working on right now is a task force, a study group." said Senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican from Ferndale and the main sponsor of the legislation. "We'll be working this year to come back next year with recommendations to the legislature on the viability of moving forward with nuclear energy. Will it be small modular nuclear reactors? Will we be looking at large scale nuclear reactors? Or do we decide we have enough hydro and natural gas that it's not cost effective to go down this route?"
According to the Washington Department of Commerce, 73% of the state's power comes from hydro-electric dams. But another 14% comes from coal and 7.7% from natural gas. The idea behind the nuclear study is to see if carbon generating fossil fuels can be eliminated by using more nuclear. Right now nuclear accounts for about 3% of the state's power generation - solar, wind and other renewable for the rest.
Much of the attention on the nuclear future surrounds modular nuclear reactors developed in Oregon that promise to be safe from earthquakes and cooling problems. They’re factory built scalable facilities that can remain relatively small at 45 megawatts or become larger by adding more reactors. The technology was developed in part at Oregon State University in Corvallis, a project that's now growing under a new business developing with grants from the U.S. Department of Energy under NuScale Power LLC.
But there are critics. Tom Buchanan, a board member with Physicians for Social Responsibility in Seattle, questions the carbon savings, citing carbon emitted during the manufacture of nuclear fuels, in addition to the ongoing issue of what to do with spent fuel once it's used up.
"There are other options. We think that carbon free and nuclear free go hand in hand." said Buchanan. He said renewable energy sources including wind and solar, along with continuing energy conservation are the way forward.