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Lawmakers Talk Nuclear Energy, And Washington’s Clean Energy Future

Given the current political climate surrounding energy production in Washington state, perhaps it wasn’t surprising a nuclear energy task force consisting of Democratic and Republican lawmakers failed to make recommendations when it met for the final time in 2014 on Wednesday.

But despite the inaction, comments from key lawmakers on energy policy from the respective parties provided some glimpse of how they’ll view nuclear energy in the broader scope of power generation in Washington state. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch and the task force chair, said the task force will continue meeting into 2015.

Moreover, the discussion set the stage for new rounds of debate in Olympia on old topics such as how nuclear energy fits in with the state’s clean energy portfolio, which voters created when they passed Initiative 937 10 years ago, and whether the state should scale back efforts on wind and solar energy generation in favor of nuclear energy.

Looming in the background of Wednesday’s talks was Gov. Jay Inslee’s push to reduce carbon emissions in Washington state. Nuclear energy doesn’t produce any carbon emissions, but neither does wind nor solar. Democrats and Republicans swapped some thinly veiled barbs on which was the right source to pursue.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, said the state could be poised to ride a revival in nuclear energy production, focusing on smaller reactors that produce less waste and could be built at lower cost than the historically larger projects it’s spent money on.

sharon brown

Sen. Sharon Brown

Brown’s 8th District is home to the state’s only operating commercial nuclear power reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, and she has been a strong proponent of expanding the technology statewide.

“Is the state of Washington going to be a leader or a follower when it comes to emerging technologies?” Brown asked her fellow legislators.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, tried to temper Brown’s expectations by saying that the market for new nuclear energy generation isn’t quite as ready as other renewable energy sources. Fey, director of the WSU Extension Energy Program, is leading a stakeholder group on solar energy tax incentives that’s due to deliver its final report Monday.

“It’s always in the context of where the markets are,” Fey said. “The markets might be better in other areas.”

Jake fey

Rep. Jake Fey

The nuclear energy industry estimates that it would be as much as 10 years before a new project could come online, given the costs, permitting and construction required.

Energy Northwest, a joint powers authority that operates the Columbia Generating Station, is partnering with a Corvallis, Ore.-based company named NuScale Power that designs the small modular reactor and obtained $226 million in federal grant funding to help spark new development in Washington.

It would mark a new chapter of nuclear power in Washington state, which has an unfavorable history. The Columbia Generating Station is the sole surviving project of five that Energy Northwest, then called the Washington Public Power Supply System, originally spearheaded. Four of the projects failed to get off the ground, and the authority declared, at the time, the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history.

The smaller reactors could be assembled in tandem with others, and create 50 to 300 megawatts of power; the Columbia Generating Station creates 1,170 megawatts, or about 10 percent of all power consumed in Washington, according to Energy Northwest.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chair of the Senate Energy Committee, said the Legislature will have to make a series of decisions about the future of nuclear power in Washington, as well as getting the U.S. Department of Energy to sign off on any permits needed.

But, he said the technology has a chance to supplant solar and wind energy generation, which he considers “less cost effective” alternatives. The Columbia Generating Station touts the fact that its levelized costs of 4.7 cents to 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour is lower than the 6 to 14 cents for natural gas, 7 to 10 cents for wind, and 11 to 42 cents per kilowatt hour for solar energy, according to the Energy Information Administration.

If the decision is to pursue nuclear, Ericksen said he wants the state to open up I-937 requirements, which have been mostly focused on generating solar and wind electricity. That issue has cropped up in the Legislature on almost an annual basis since voters passed the law in 2006, and Fey countered that he didn’t want to see it pop up again, knowing its history.

Ericksen said nuclear power generation would force the issue. Nuclear energy has the potential for long-term viability as well, as the Columbia Generating Station recently renewed its operating permit through 2043.

“We do need to look…at how that would impact 937 and the load on the grid,” Ericksen said. “I think it’s an exciting time. Where are we going to need power on the grid?”

But Sen. John McCoy, a Democrat from Snohomish County, voiced concern that the task force had not been presented with information on the “life cycle cost” of nuclear power generation, which includes how much it would cost to store the spent fuel — and crucially, where that storage would be.

McCoy said he wanted that information before ever signing on to a nuclear energy production plan.

“There should be some sort of projected life cycle cost,” McCoy said. “That has never been presented to me. That is a major concern for me.”

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