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Editorial: New mini-reactors: Our least-bad energy choice?

Washington Legislature, Oregon company taking steps toward small-scale, next-generation nuclear power

Published on December 9, 2014 12:01AM

Washington legislators consider next-generation mini-reactors

One of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s many pits in southeast Washington is lined with fat, white capsules. They are expended reactor cores from nuclear submarines. Boasting a reasonable safety record, these units have inspired the idea of bringing back nuclear power in a far different form than the huge complex we remember at Trojan Nuclear Power Plant near St. Helens, which was shut down in 1993.

As explored last week in the online news source Crosscut, a Washington state legislative task force will be taking another year to look at whether to kick-start this technology as a source for civilian electric power. The idea is top-of-mind in Washington due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s intense desire to find energy alternatives that don’t contribute to global warming. But the task force is bipartisan, attracting interest from the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“The task force has focused on small modular reactors — tiny, prefab reactors whose parts are manufactured in one location, and then transported to the reactor site for final assembly,” Crosscut reports. “A modular segment would be a mini-reactor of 50 to 300 megawatts. By comparison, Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station reactor is 1,150 megawatts. Small modular reactors are supposed to be designed so extra modules can be added as needed. This concept is still on the drawing board.”

Corvallis-based NuScale has a small modular reactor design that the Washington task force finds interesting. NuScale, Energy Northwest and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems are already working on a plan to launch a mini-reactor program at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory within the next 10 years.

All this will excite dissent from many who consider nuclear power to be fundamentally flawed — akin to sprinkling the earth with poison pills that our descendants will have to live with for tens of thousands of years. Certainly, the meltdown at a nuclear facility in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami seemed likely to throw a wrench into the gears of the “Nuclear Renaissance” some had touted.

There are legitimate issues with nuclear power. For one, the U.S. still lacks a permanent radioactive waste disposal facility. Nevada senator and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has stymied efforts to open a such a site at Yucca Mountain, but Democrats loss of Senate control in the November election may reignite this scenario for disposal.

There also remains a possibility that wind, solar and conservation can all be more seriously pursued, before resorting to an energy source that many find discomforting. But all these options are fraught with difficulties, such as the endangered species-based objections that killed a small wind-turbine proposal in Pacific County.

No less an environmentalist than Steward Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame believes nuclear may be the only available option that can meet our needs before climate change reaches the point of no return.

“A bunch of things are having to be rethought. Things that we thought were against green, like nuclear and bio-technology and even geo-engineering are, in light of climate, actually now green,” Brand said.

There’s still much background study to be performed, and some citizens will never be convinced no matter what. But Washington legislators are right to be willing to at least entertain the possibility that next-generation reactors could be our least-bad choice in light of the existential threat of climate change.


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