Geography divided those who commented Tuesday afternoon at a Richland public hearing on the draft environmental study on extending the operating license for the nuclear power plant near Richland.
Those who live in the Tri-City area near the Columbia Generating Station liked the draft study and supported allowing the Energy Northwest plant to operate another 20 years.
Those who live in the Seattle, Portland or Columbia Gorge areas opposed extending the license, at least until more study is done.
Energy Northwest has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the plant's license from 2023 to 2043. A draft environmental study, one step in the license renewal process, found that any adverse environmental impact of the renewal would not be great enough to deny the license renewal.
The NRC will consider public comment before issuing a final environmental report.
The Columbia Generating Station and hydropower provide the Tri-Cities some of the lowest energy rates in the nation, and that will be important in the area's economic recovery, said Colin Hastings, vice president of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The nuclear power plant also provides 1,100 jobs for highly skilled workers, said Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland. Those jobs and the purchasing power of those workers and the plant are critical in the poor economy, he said.
Others pointed out the need for those jobs as the Hanford nuclear reservation is cutting thousands of jobs.
The consistent power the plant produces cannot be replaced with wind energy, several Tri-City speakers said.
Wind is either on or off, and "our society does not work on off," said Carl Holder, a Tri-City energy consultant.
Gary Petersen, of the Tri-City Development Council, said he lives within 10 miles of the power plant and has no safety concerns.
The Tri-Cities is the fastest-growing region in the state and is expected to need an additional 150 megawatts of power by 2020, he said.
Those who questioned renewing the plant's license now or the findings of the draft study mostly spoke via a phone conference line to the Richland meeting.
The NRC is rubber-stamping license renewals, said Charles Johnson of Portland. Studies and decisions should be delayed at least until a full study is done about the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster, he said. The Japan reactors had a design similar to the one near Richland, he said.
The draft study should consider the effect of an accident at the Hanford nuclear reservation on the power plant, said Karen Axell, of Vancouver. The nuclear power plant is on leased land at Hanford, and elsewhere at Hanford, plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program was made during the Cold War.
Tri-City people may be confident in the safety of the Columbia Generating Station, but Japanese officials also thought the Fukushima plants were safe, said Hafiz Heartsun. Heartsun said a public hearing should have been held in Hood River, Ore.
Several people, including Gerald Pollet of Heart of America Northwest in Seattle, questioned the safety of using mixed oxide fuel, which would contain surplus weapons plutonium, in the plant. A similar fuel was used at Fukushima.
Energy Northwest has discussed mixed oxide fuel at board meetings but has not taken the initial step of contracting for a feasibility study of using the fuel.
Any use of alternate fuels would require exhaustive analysis and use likely would not start for a decade, Holder said.
An evening public hearing in Richland also was held Tuesday.
Comments on the draft environmental study may be submitted until Nov. 16 to Chief, Rules, Announcements and Directives Branch, Office of Administration, Mail Stop: TWB-05-B01M, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory commission, Washington, D.C., 20555-0001. They also may be submitted online at www.regulations.gov. Search for NRC-2010-0029.