If Americans are to receive all of their electricity without coal and natural gas by 2035, they will need nuclear power. Even if Washingtonians, who already procure over 70 percent of their electricity from hydro, are to be completely devoid of fossil fuel generation by 2045, they must have nuclear.
Washington’s Clean Energy Transformation Act passed this year by the legislature leans heavily on renewable fuels, particularly wind and solar. It calls for electrical generation to be free from emitting greenhouses gases, such as CO2. Little mentioned is nuclear; however, it can play a major role in the years ahead, especially with newer technologies being developed in Oregon.
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 percent. However, nuclear chips in 19 percent. 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 such as the Columbia River Generating Station at Hanford. 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. That station produces enough electricity to supply Seattle and some of its suburbs (1.5 millionhouseholds). However, similar projects have been decommissioned and demolished. For example, Oregon’s only nuclear plant, Trojan, shut down in 1992 and was razed.
So with that trend and people’s fear, why reconsider nuclear power?
First, consider it is out of necessity. Without nuclear, it will be difficult to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Nuclear power does not 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.
Second, nuclear power plants generate massive amounts of electricity on a small land footprint. Available land will grow increasingly scarce. For example, 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 big question is safety. The U.S. Navy initiated its nuclear propulsion program in 1948 with safety as top priority. Since 1975, all submarines and supercarriers have been powered by nuclear reactors and its safety record is very good.
Similar to the Navy, the new commercial nuclear technology is smaller. The advanced small modular nuclear reactor developed at Oregon State University was spun out to NuScale. Those reactors take up 1 percent of the space of a conventional reactor and each one produces 60 megawatts of power. When stacked together, the 12 would perform as one.
To make the reactors safer, Jose Reyes, a nuclear engineer and co-founder of NuScale, told Science Magazine, they have simplified the design and made them impervious to meltdown. They will be factory built and moved to the site, which could include demolished plant sites like Trojan.
The first SMR is working its way through the licensing process and would be located at Idaho’s National Lab near Idaho Falls. It is expected to be operational by 2023. Staff from Energy Northwest are 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 approximately 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, retired president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@ msn.com.