Senate approves nuclear task force; meetings in Richland

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 12, 2014 

The state Senate voted Wednesday to create a task force to evaluate the use of nuclear power to replace electricity generated by fossil fuels in the state.

A task force would hold up to four meetings, with at least two of them in Richland. Senators Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, are among the bill's sponsors.

The task force would evaluate the environmental benefits versus the costs of nuclear power, including the storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

It would be comprised of eight members, with the Senate president and House speaker appointing equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. They would report their findings and recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 1 and disband by Dec. 15.

In the last legislative session, Brown secured $500,000 for the Tri-City Development Council to commission a study of the possible benefits of building a small modular nuclear reactor system at the Hanford nuclear reservation. TRIDEC recently received the money from the state and is considering proposals for its study.

The technology for the small reactors is still being proven, but investments are being made, said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, the lead sponsor for the legislation.

The Department of Energy already has announced $452 million in matching funds for two proposals to design and license modular nuclear reactors. One proposal is by NuScale Power in Oregon, with tentative plans for an Idaho plant that could be operated by Energy Northwest in Richland.

A legislative work group on climate change somewhat agreed that nuclear power will have a future in the state's electrical power grid, Ericksen said. The group attempted to put price tags on carbon reduction strategies in the state.

Two senators -- Adam Kline, D-Seattle, and Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island -- spoke against the bill, at least in part because of environmental contamination and the checkered cleanup history at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Hanford produced plutonium during World War II and the Cold War for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Kline brought up Hanford waste stored in leak-prone underground tanks from the chemical processing of irradiated fuel to separate out plutonium, a process that is not a part of producing electricity.

The aquifer is polluted at Hanford, but not from nuclear power plants, said Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline.

"I'm not afraid of a study," she said.

Chase's opinions of nuclear power reactors are not good, she said, adding that decisions can be based on fact, not opinion, if nuclear power is studied.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, voted against the bill because it called nuclear power production a "safe" source of electricity, in addition to being reliable, cost-effective and carbon-free.

But Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, said fears over the safety of nuclear power are overblown and most people support the Northwest's only nuclear power plant, Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station near Richland. Sheldon serves on Energy Northwest's executive board.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the Navy has operated nuclear reactors for more than 50 years, including about a dozen at bases in Washington state.

"We shouldn't say no just because it is nuclear," he said.

The bill now goes to the House.

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

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