— Editor's note: A previous version of this story included a few paragraphs about the Hanford nuclear-waste site. Comparing nuclear energy (and used nuclear fuel) to the process of extracting plutonium for nuclear weapons introduced an inaccuracy into the story.
OLYMPIA — Emotions were high on the Senate floor earlier this month as legislators debated whether to pursue a proposal to study nuclear energy’s prospects in Washington.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, says nuclear power is safer and more efficient than in the past, and deserves a fresh look as a source for electricity.
"Nuclear power will have a future in Washington state," he said on during the Feb. 12 floor debate.
Following the debate, a bill that would create a task force to study nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuels passed with a 34-15 vote. It moved to the House Technology and Economic Development Committee on Feb. 20 for a public hearing.
Ericksen, the primary sponsor, said Senate Bill 5991 calls only for a study, not construction of new facilities.
The task force would consist of eight legislators, four from the Senate and four from the House, with equal representation from both Democrats and Republicans. They would hold four meetings during 2014, and report their findings to the Legislature by Dec. 1. The task force would be concluded by Dec. 15.
Dale Atkinson of Energy Northwest, which owns Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant near Richland that produces approximately 10 percent of Washington’s electricity, is in favor of the bill.
Atkinson said nuclear power could be a good source of electricity for Washington and the nation because it doesn't burn fossil fuels and it doesn't release carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
"We believe that the study of nuclear power as a replace for fossil fuel is appropriate and timely," Atkinson said at a public hearing in the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee in January.
A push for nuclear power in Washington State has happened before. In the 1950s, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), since renamed Energy Northwest, started a massive statewide nuclear power-plant construction project.
Construction was halted mid-project as a result of design issues and cost changes. Four of the five plants were never finished. The fifth was the Columbia Generating Station, which is still in operation. WPPSS Board of Directors stopped construction on the others in 1982 because the projected cost for all the plants was going to be more than $24 billion instead of the original $16 billion estimate.
This caused the agency to default on $2.25 billion in bonds — money that had already been spent on the scrapped power plants. At the time, it was the largest municipal debt default in U.S. history.
The total debt for the project is currently $5.4 billion, which includes the Columbia Generating Station, according to Energy Northwest. The debt is owned by Bonneville Power Administration because they were the original backers on the bonds.
That debt is being paid by ratepayers through their electricity bills.
While some legislators now want to revisit nuclear power as an alternative energy source, getting public support could be a challenge.
Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, is in “soft support” of the bill and said in an interview that before any more reactors are built, nuclear energy advocates will have the task of convincing the public that this will be good for the state. McCoy is a ranking member of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.
“The proponents of it have a huge [public relations] campaign to do,” McCoy said. “They are going to have a lot of difficulties.” He also said that supporters will encounter the issue of finding investors to fund future projects.
That is evident already, as BPA says it is not looking at nuclear power as an option right now.
“We have no plans to build any more [nuclear power plants],” said Doug Johnson, spokesman for BPA.
In the first section, the bill states that nuclear power is "a safe, reliable, cost-effective, and carbon-free source of electricity." Some legislators and others think this statement should be the question around the study, not the assumption.
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, agreed a study should be done, but disagreed with the language in the bill’s first section.
"I don't have a problem with a study," Frockt said. "I have a problem with a definitive statement by our Legislature that this is a safe industry."Frances Hall, a concerned citizen from Bremerton, testified at the House Technology and Economic Development Committee public hearing on Feb. 20, expressing similar concerns.
“This sentence is prematurely drawing conclusions,” Hall said.
With an amendment added by McCoy to include life-cycle costs and waste disposal, the resulting substitute bill passed the Senate, but with strong opposition from a handful of legislators. During the debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, urged a "no" vote from her colleagues.
"Let's take care of what we have in Eastern Washington [Hanford]," she said. "Let's not talk about expanding smaller nuclear packages throughout our state and putting more communities at risk."
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said that they shouldn't say no to the study, but nuclear power comes with disadvantages. "Generating more waste, or studying how to generate more waste ... is a waste of our time."
THE LIFECYCLE OF URANIUM
Mined: The lifecycle of uranium starts like any other mineral — it is found in mines throughout the world, a lot of which are in Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. But some are located in the U.S. as well, including Colorado.
Milled: The ore is then milled (crushed and soaked with sulfuric acid), and converted into a gas form.
Enrichment: The last step is enrichment. Enriching uranium, in the most simplistic terms, is fission in which atoms split to create energy and thus heat.
Energy: This heat is used to boil water which produces steam, in the case of the Columbia Generating Station. The steam is used to power turbines that produce electricity via a generator.
Waste: The spent fuel (uranium) is now radioactive waste and has to be stored to first cool off and then to prevent any contamination in the environment.
Most uranium found in the world today (99 percent) has a half-life of 4.468 billion years, meaning that in that time it has decreased its energy level by half. But it is still radioactive.
Sources include: Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Northwest.