By Don C. Brunell
Nuclear power plants supply 10 percent of world’s electricity. But opponents say they are too dangerous and too expensive. They point to the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union, considered to be the world’s worst nuclear disaster. But 30 years later, commercial nuclear generation of electricity is safer and provides a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Nuclear technology is changing. Rather than building large nuclear power plants on the scale of Chernobyl, scientists are looking to the U.S. Navy for small reactor technology. It has been working for the U.S. Navy since 1954 when the USS Nautilus was launched as the world's first nuclear-powered submarine. Today’s Navy runs on nuclear power and thousands of sailors safely work on board ships all over the world within a few feet of the ship’s nuclear reactor.
In early 2014, the Department of Energy announced plans to develop small modular reactors about one-third the size of standard nuclear-power plants, which can generate between 45 to 300 megawatts of power. Currently, our state’s only nuclear power electricity generating plant, the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, produces 1,190 megawatts of electricity, which is about 10 percent of the electricity generated in Washington State.
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The Hanford reactor was built on site, but these small reactors could be built in factories and transported to Hanford or other locations where they would be installed and grouped together to accommodate specific power needs. Then, rather than taking the whole power plant off line for repairs or refueling, small modules could be systematically replaced. Early last year, the U.S. Department of Energy issued $452 million in matching funds design and license modular nuclear reactors at two sites.
One of the logical places is Hanford. It could develop the never completed WNP-1 plant. WNP-1 was part of the five-unit Washington Public Power Supply System network of nuclear power plants planned and partly constructed in the 1970s. Only one of the five was finished and is generating electricity. The Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, in Kennewick believes taxpayers could save $300 million building the prototype at Hanford. A new small modular reactor, costing between $500 million and $1 billion, could create construction and permanent jobs, potentially replacing some jobs that likely would be lost at Hanford, according to TRIDEC.
It is a technology we, in Washington, should pursue. Here is why. First, our demand for electricity continues to climb. The U.S. Energy Administration estimates our demand for electricity will grow three percent a year for the next 25 years. Second, if we are going to switch from gas and diesel engines to electric motors for our trains, trucks and automobiles, we will not only have to develop better batteries, but also build a vast network of charging stations – and find the electricity to power them.
In the Pacific Northwest we have an abundance of economical hydropower, but in many parts of our nation, charging stations are supplied with electricity from coal or natural gas fired power plants. Finally, whether nuclear power plants are popular is beside the point. They can be a safe, reliable, affordable – and greenhouse gas free – way to generate electricity.
Don Brunell is the former president and CEO of the Association of Washington Business.
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