Nuclear vs. renewable energy sources debated by NPR's Ira Flatow panel

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 30, 2012 

— Whether nuclear power has a place in Northwest energy production along with renewable energy resources depended on who Ira Flatow was asking Monday night.

The host of National Public Radio's Science Friday was in Richland to lead a panel discussion about the future of energy. Hundreds turned out to hear the discussion in a program sponsored by NPR with the support of the Richland School District, the Richland Library Foundation and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"I hope if I do my job well, over time we won't need nuclear," said Rachel Shimshak, executive director of the nonprofit Renewable Northwest Project.

Renewable energy has suffered from market barriers, but nuclear energy has not proved cheap, either, she said.

"I respectfully, but vigorously, disagree," said Donald Wall, director of the Nuclear Radiation Center, which operates a research reactor at Washington State University.

The average cost of nuclear production is equal to the wind production credit and has dropped below the cost of large fossil fuel production, he said.

Nuclear plants that have paid off initial expenses "are printing money," he said.

Nuclear energy definitely has a role, said Michael Kintner-Meyer, an engineer at PNNL's Advanced Power and Energy Systems group.

But Germany is weaning itself off nuclear power after the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster, he said. The price of electricity will go up, but Germany believes the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks given its leadership in wind and solar exports.

Keith Thomsen, assistant director of the Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy at Washington State University Tri-Cities, took the middle ground.

Nuclear, like most energy technologies, will continue to play a role, he said. But he hopes that renewables play a much larger role and nuclear and fossil fuel follow on technologies, he said.

All technologies have pros and cons, he said.

"Hydro is great unless you are a fish," he said. "If you are a bird, wind carries risk."

Renewables, such as wind, also are intermittent.

Electricity consumption goes down at night, but the wind blows more then, Kintner-Meyer said. Wind production in the Columbia River Gorge can drop off quickly, he said.

However, PNNL is working on ways that electric cars may help balance out the load. When are electric cars parked and being recharged? he asked. At night.

There also may be opportunities to send a signal to chargers to ramp down for 30 minutes when power production declines, he said.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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