Last week, the Oregon House Energy and Environment Committee held a public hearing on HB 3445, a bill that would establish a nuclear energy task force to:
• Study and report on the methods used to procure nuclear energy, including methods that have been developed since the closure of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant;
• Analyze and report on a variety of available technologies used to procure nuclear energy;
• Analyze and report on the costs and benefits of using nuclear energy to provide for this state’s energy needs; and,
• Recommend a strategy for the contribution of nuclear power to the provision of continued abundant, inexpensive and environmentally sound energy for this state.
The bill had no chance of moving forward as it was brought to a hearing past a key legislative deadline. So why the hearing?
From the hearing itself, one gets the sense it was an admirable show of bi-partisanship by the committee chair, Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson of Portland (the bill’s chief sponsor is a republican), and that, well, small modular reactor technology is cool and there is a budding major success story in the form of homegrown NuScale Power worth hearing more about.
There is also a glaring disconnect in the state of Oregon.
“We have one of the leading nuclear engineering programs at Oregon State University. But these world-renown nuclear engineers must leave Oregon to pursue their careers. These students take their skills and expertise elsewhere,” Rep. Jim Weidner, the bill’s chief sponsor, testified.
While there are no operating nuclear plants in Oregon (Trojan shut down in 1993), the state’s voters passed a ballot initiative in 1980 that essentially prohibits any new nuclear energy reactors from being built. Much has changed since 1980, except in some minds. More on that later.
NuScale representatives Dr. Jose Reyes, chief technical officer, and Dale Atkinson, chief operating officer, walked the committee members through the NuScale story. It was the kind of inspiring testimony that fueled a previous blog post here.
Dr. Reyes talked about starting the company at Oregon State University with a $4,000 grant and a dream to create a new style of light-water reactor with passive safety features, meaning no operator action or additional cooling water or even additional power needed in the event of an emergency. On top of those safety features, the NuScale reactor delivers the same baseload, carbon-free energy we’ve all come to expect from nuclear. A two-fer and then some.
“Fluor invested in NuScale after Fukushima. So that’s very telling,” Dr. Reyes told the committee.
OSU PhD. student Sam Goodrich testified on nuclear energy’s carbon-free benefits. Goodrich pointed out that Oregon’s current energy mix, though dominated by hydro-electricity, still produces about 10 million metric tons of CO2 every year (from 1.8 gigawatts of generation). Goodrich said Oregon’s two million passenger cars emit about nine million tons of CO2 a year. “You could take every single passenger car off the road and it would have less impact than installing one large nuclear power plant in Oregon,” Goodrich testified.
The Oregon legislature recently looked at a bill that would ban so-called “coal-by-wire” to the state (as well as most new carbon-emitting forms of generation, such as large natural gas plants). Oregon is also a leader where wind power is concerned. But wind power is intermittent.
The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger summed up the situation thusly:
Yet replacing even 1,000 megawatts of coal with the cheapest renewable available – wind energy – could prove impractical. It would require utilities to build some 3,000 megawatts of capacity, as wind turbines typically produce only about a third of their capacity.
That’s an enormous addition to the current wind fleet, and most of the best wind sites in Oregon are already taken. The intermittent nature of the resource could also create reliability issues, transmission logjams, and exacerbate oversupply issues in the spring and summer, when wind and hydroelectric dams already produce more electricity than the region can absorb. The Bonneville Power Administration says it has already tapped out its ability to integrate more wind energy in the region, which is typically accomplished by cycling the output of the federal dams up and down.
So how to supply baseload energy that doesn’t emit carbon and could also be used to balance the ups-and-downs of wind? And bring family-wage jobs to the state? Nuclear energy, particularly an SMR such as NuScale’s, can do all that.
“There’s a very large number of young (NuScale) employees who are so enthusiastic about what they’re bringing to the world to really change both nuclear, but more importantly, the quality of life and a solution to some really tough problems for the world and for Oregon,” NuScale’s Dale Atkinson told the hearing.
The other side
The Energy and Environment Committee also heard from those opposed to nuclear energy, including long-time Portland activist Lloyd Marbet, unsuccessful in three ballot initiatives to close the Trojan nuclear plant (Portland General Electric ended up doing that on its own).
Marbet focused on the used fuel that is still stored at the Trojan site, “just above the Columbia River.”
But if the audience anticipated finally learning about the “dangers” of used nuclear fuel storage, they would be left wanting. (Facts here). Apart from mentioning the juxtaposition to the river, there was no testimony of any actual environmental harm from used nuclear fuel storage. By any of the anti-nuclear activists. There was plenty of talk about Yucca Mountain not being open, which is one of the main points of Measure 7 (no new nukes until a national repository is licensed and operating). However, we know quite a bit more about used nuclear fuel storage management than we did in 1980 – including that long-term temporary storage, though not ideal, is not such a bad thing.
In 1980, so soon after Three Mile Island and Hollywood’s China Syndrome, Measure 7 passed with just a little over 53 percent of the vote. A win, but a close one.
In written comments, a member of the Hanford Advisory Board, which focuses on defense waste clean-up in Washington state, said this: “The dangers and costs associated with spent nuclear fuel have not changed at all since 1980.” Hyperbole to be sure, but there follows no evidence to support that claim. He then added: “The fuel from the closed Trojan nuclear power plant remains in dry cask storage at the Trojan site…” Surely if there was an environmental impact from spent nuclear fuel, the evidence would have been brought forward.
The “live” testimony from the Physicians for Social Responsibility rep centered on the un-viability of the NuScale design (so unviable that Fluor has invested a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in it thus far). This is the same rep who said Columbia Generating Station’s spent fuel pool wasn’t designed for earthquakes because the engineers were too focused on the reactor – and forgot. He also cited a 2003 MIT study to talk about the challenges to developing new nuclear energy facilities. An update to that 2003 study, published in 2009, makes it clear that, again, times have changed:
In sum, compared to 2003, the motivation to make more use of nuclear power is greater, and more rapid progress is needed in enabling the option of nuclear power expansion to play a role in meeting the global warming challenge.
Knowledge is still power
What is clear from the anti-nuclear activist testimony is that conversations such as the one that took place last week in Salem, shouldn’t. That more knowledge where nuclear energy is concerned is a bad thing. That science and technology have not made any progress since 1980.
It was like watching the Sony Walkman crowd talking down this new-fangled iPod thingy. The Washington state legislature has a nuclear energy task force that held meetings across the state last year and even visited the NuScale facility in Corvallis, Ore. The sky didn’t fall. (The same people didn’t want those discussions to happen either.)
Remember, knowledge is power. In this case, it could (eventually) be nuclear power.
(Posted by John Dobken. In 2013, Energy Northwest joined a teaming arrangement with NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems as part of the Western Initiative for Nuclear Project collaboration to promote a commercial, small modular reactor project in the western U.S. Energy Northwest holds first right of offer to operate the project. By doing so, Energy Northwest will become one of the first industry experts for small modular reactor operation.)