Guest Opinions

Jim Conca: Nuclear should be part of clean energy goals

Washington state senators did a good thing when they introduced Senate Bill 6253 this year, which establishes a clean energy standard. But when public hearings were held, the discussion turned decidedly ideological.

The usual suspects were present to ensure their almost-religious, anti-nuclear stance was the only position considered.

There were no scientists present to refute their obvious misrepresentations.

In short, the legislation requires electric utilities and market customers to meet new electricity needs only with distributed energy resources and carbon-free resources.

The goal is to meet all electricity needs with these resources by 2045.

In addition, the bill requires all electric utilities to stop charging customers for electricity generated from coal-fired power plants.

It requires the Department of Commerce to figure out how to get energy efficiency and near-zero emission transportation options, and weatherization investments to low-income customers, all while increasing opportunities for Washington’s small businesses.

The whole point of this legislation is to address carbon emissions by promoting low-carbon energy sources and strategies.

So you’d think that the public participants would care more about addressing global warming and not get lost in the weeds of their own ideological cravings.

Low-carbon is the key term here, not just renewables, so nuclear energy should be in the mix.

This was also the idea of Rep. Terry Nealey’s proposed amendment to House Bill 2042 that would add nuclear to the definition of a renewable/clean energy resource.

The amendment failed on a party-line vote, but Rep. Nealey, R-Dayton, spoke very eloquently in support of the Columbia Generating Station, nuclear energy, and small modular nuclear reactors.

All leading climate scientists, including the top four — Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Tom Wigley, Dr. Ken Caldeira and Dr. Kerry Emanuel — have repeatedly stated that we need all low-carbon sources; renewables, nuclear and hydro.

So it’s strange to see self-proclaimed climate advocates disrespecting actual climate scientists, and using anecdotes and made-up data to say nuclear energy should be excluded.

Fear and misunderstanding aside, nuclear energy is the safest form of energy we have.

No one supporting nuclear energy is saying we don’t need renewables, but anti-nuke activists see “all low-carbon sources” as secret code for “killing renewables.”

New technological solutions are not restricted to solar and wind. New nuclear plants are being developed by NuScale in Corvallis, Ore. — plants that are on track for approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — that cannot melt down. Period.

And we know what to do about the waste; we just don’t have the national political will to do what needs to be done.

It’s true many states in deregulated regions have been struggling with how to maintain their well-running nuclear plants in the face of wholesale energy markets warped by cheap natural gas and large renewable subsidies.

Every time a nuclear plant closes ahead of schedule, natural gas fills in, not renewables. This happened in Massachusetts, Vermont, California, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin, even though keeping the nuclear plants open is more cost effective and better for the environment. New York is struggling with this as well.

We’re fortunate in Washington to have a regulated market — with hydro, nuclear, wind, gas and coal — that gives us the lowest carbon foot print, and lowest cost electricity, of any state. Our only coal plant is closing soon, to be replaced with gas.

We need to keep supporting this strategy. Hydro will never increase. Building wind just offsets hydro in our state (and some thermal) because we use mostly hydro to stabilize the grid as the wind fluctuates (or dies completely).

This proposed legislation takes the prudent approach and promotes smart, low-carbon solutions in our state by embracing all low-carbon resources — not just the ideologically preferred ones. Sustaining existing nuclear energy, and looking to new nuclear designs, should be a part of those solutions.

Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/jamesconca.

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