by Paul Lorenzini
As a native Oregonian who has spent nearly all his life in the Northwest, the yin and yang of attitudes toward nuclear power has been interesting to follow. Priding itself on its commitment to the environment and having felt the impact of a 1980’s bond default, both Washington and Oregon have historically tended toward the nuclear skeptics. So I was interested when we founded NuScale Power in 2007, with home offices in Corvallis and Portland, to see what the reaction would be.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Political leaders not only welcomed the economic benefits, they took seriously the safety advances of the NuScale design and the economic advantages of Small Modular Reactors. We even had some positive press, enough so that my son, living as a surfer in Seaside, Ore., was surprised when the subject of small reactors spontaneously (and positively) came up in a random conversation among his surfer buddies.
Still, the anti-nuclear energy vibe is alive and, well, hanging on. The one operating nuclear power plant in the region, the Columbia Generating Station owned by Energy Northwest and located just north of Richland, Wash., generates occasional interest from anti-nuclear groups seeking to find any (literally any) reason for permanently shutting it down. In a report released in late 2013, for example, a group sponsored a study claiming the plant should be closed on economic grounds. While it received some initial coverage in the press, it failed to gain traction when a close examination showed – to no one’s surprise – that the math simply didn’t work. More recently they sponsored a report targeting the spent fuel pool, seeking to make associations with Fukushima. Again, it failed to gain much traction, especially after Energy Northwest noted that they had erred in assuming a radioactive inventory that was off (on the high side) by as much as 100,000,000 curies (see here and here). It was equally obvious that they had exaggerated the risks. As Energy Northwest Spokesperson Mike Paoli curtly observed, even at Fukushima, after a 9.0 earthquake, a 45-foot tsunami and three hydrogen explosions that blew the side and roof off reactor buildings at the site, “the spent fuel pools didn’t lose a drop of water.”
All of which brings us to the public at large. How much of this actually gets on the public radar? What are they thinking? Over the past six months, I had the opportunity to speak to thirteen Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs in and around Portland, with a few more coming later this year. They ranged in size from less than 20 to more than 70. I would not claim this to be a very scientific survey, but they do represent a cross section of middle class citizens in the region who could be fairly considered more informed than average. My topic was the importance of Columbia Generating Station to the Northwest, with candid discussions of Fukushima, waste disposal, and small modular reactors.
So I was curious. What would I find? It was not just a question of whether the kerfuffle from these anti-nuclear challenges had been getting anyone’s attention, I also wanted to get a feel for how much public sentiments had been affected by Fukushima. Similarly, after all the investments in wind (more than 4,500 MW of installed capacity in the Northwest) did they see a continuing role for nuclear power? What were their attitudes toward nuclear power?
After reflecting on all this, here are some general observations:
- The overall tenor in every meeting was positive and supportive. My interpretation – attitudes toward nuclear power have significantly shifted from early skepticism and have not been as seriously affected by Fukushima as we might have thought.
- None of the recent claims from that one anti-nuclear energy group was ever mentioned. It says to me these are largely “inside baseball” and are getting little attention outside the circle of the cognoscenti.
- In early meetings I received skeptical questions about the security of long-term spent fuel containers. Once I added details on the nature of the containers, the land area they would take, and the recent actions by the NRC on long-term waste disposal, the waste issue no longer raised questions.
- There seemed to be acceptance that wind has limitations – I was never challenged by anyone who felt wind and efficiency would solve meeting our future energy needs.
- There was a lot of interest (positive) in developing technologies, certainly SMRs, but also fusion, the Bill Gates-funded Terra Power and other next generation technologies.
- The most skeptical kinds of comments came after the meetings when individuals would come up and express the feeling that there are no easy answers. It said to me people continue to be thoughtful about the risks but realize they must be balanced.
- Interestingly, when I emphasized the important role nuclear power can play in decarbonizing our electricity emissions, I found no skepticism about the need to address this challenge.
As a general observation, it would be naïve to conclude there were no silent skeptics in these audiences; my informal “survey” was just that – an informal testing of the waters. But overall I was encouraged by what seems to be receptivity toward nuclear power in a region known for its skepticism, even in the period following Fukushima.
Paul Lorenzini has extensive experience in both executive management and nuclear operations and is dedicated to advancing public understanding of nuclear technologies. He began his career with Atomics International, a division of Rockwell International, after earning his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Oregon State University. While developing safety analysis codes for design of the liquid metal-cooled fast breed reactor, he also attended law school and earned his J.D.
After working with a Portland-based law firm, Lorenzini rejoined Rockwell International at the Hanford Nuclear Defense Complex in eastern Washington state, where he was subsequently named vice president and general manager of Rockwell’s Hanford Operations. He later joined PacifiCorp, an electric utility company in Portland, where he spent more than a decade in several executive management positions, including president of Pacific Power & Light, chief executive officer of PacifiCorp Turkey, and chief executive officer of Powercor Australia.