The Nuclear Option in Oregon
For another take on energy, see “The Nuclear Option, Revisited” by Angus Duncan
Can an environmentalist be in favor of nuclear energy? I consider myself “green.” My wife and I live in a “net zero” house with solar panels, and we drive a plug-in hybrid EV. Need I mention that I am very worried about global warming? My climate anxiety has led me to favor nuclear energy as an essential part of the carbon replacement energy mix. In fact, I purchased a few shares of an Oregon nuclear company NuScale (described below) when it went public last year.
But until recently, I have been rather shy about revealing my pro-nuclear views to my green friends. For some time, to be identified as “green” or environmentalist meant you were anti-nuclear. For example, one of the main goals of the Green Party in Germany has been to shut down German nuclear reactors. The Sierra Club is adamantly opposed to nuclear (we remain members). The Union of Concerned Scientists is very negative about nuclear but does not openly oppose it (I dropped my membership last year).
However, attitudes about nuclear energy are changing as the realities of the climate crisis become more apparent and urgent. Nuclear energy is, after all, carbon free. It currently supplies about 20% of the energy for electricity generation in the US and 50% of America’s carbon-free juice.
So, I don’t feel quite as much as an outlier now. The Nature Conservancy supports nuclear as do many other climate watchers, including James Hansen, the first scientist to warn of global warming. The Green Party in Finland supports it. In California, the plan to close Diablo Canyon nuclear plant stirred up a rancorous debate, and Governor Newsom decided to reverse his anti-nuclear stance to prolong its life. Even Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org who worked to close the only nuclear plant in Vermont, is now seeing that shutdown as a mistake.
In any case, nuclear energy is a hot topic right now. It is receiving a lot more attention as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified anxiety about energy resources. Liberal leaning politicians tend to hold their cards in tight on nuclear, preferring to push wind and solar. Traditional conservatives are more openly pro-nuclear. I earnestly hope the debate about nuclear does not devolve into a polarized scrum like so many other issues; nuclear energy policy is a rare opportunity for bipartisan consensus.
In this article I explain why I like nuclear. Because this magazine emphasizes “Views from the Northwest,” the focus is on energy policy in Oregon and Washington. I claim no technical training or expertise on the topic. I am a retired psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist. My information comes from what I think are trustworthy sources on the internet (many hyperlinks provided in this article) as well as some books. (I recommend A Bright Future by Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist that was the basis for a new documentary film by Oliver Stone entitled, Nuclear Now). The role that nuclear energy plays in addressing global warming will ultimately be decided through the political process by citizens like you and me, not by nuclear experts. With these caveats up front, I share my findings and opinions.
Where we get our electricity in Oregon.
Let’s start with where Oregon gets its electricity now (as of 2022) as is shown in the figure below. The size of the big green ball in the figure highlights how lucky we are to have access to Columbia River hydropower, furnishing 39% of our electricity from this renewable, carbon-free resource. Wind and solar together add another 8.7% of clean energy to the mix, and both are growing. Nuclear, imported from the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington, and other nuclear sources on the open market, gives us about 3.5%. Oregon is better off than many states; it already ranks as the eleventh most energy efficient state in the country and is close to the bottom on carbon emissions per capita. Nevertheless, we are still left with 48% of our electricity coming from burning coal and natural gas.
From Energy by the Numbers; Oregon’s Energy Story by the Oregon Department of Energy; 2022 Biennial Energy Report 2022
Although we are doing well in Oregon, we are working hard to do even better. In 2021 the Oregon legislature passed House Bill 2021 which directs our two largest utilities, PGE and Pacific Power, to deliver 80% clean (non-carbon) electricity by 2030, 90% percent by 2035, and 100% by 2040. Furthermore, it prohibits building or expanding natural gas-fired power plants. Washington state has a similar provision, passed in 2019, that stipulates 80% clean electricity by 2030 and 100% by 2045.
To meet the requirements of House Bill 2021, Oregon will need to eventually replace coal and gas (remember, 48% of our electrical energy supply) with some other source that is carbon-free. Many people think this could be done with wind and solar alone. But this would be a heavy lift. According to my rough calculations, it would require a buildout of these renewables to about seven times our current generation capacity, as well as producing an increase in backup power generation or energy storage, needed when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow. (But remember, House Bill 2021 does not allow for construction of new natural gas plants.)
So, is this really possible? In an article in the Oregonian (July 21, 2021), several energy experts expressed their doubts. “If you go out to 2030, we think we can hit that,” said PacifiCorp Senior Vice President Scott Bolton. “…beyond that we don’t have a plan that shows we can get there.” The 2040 target, he said, remains aspirational. “This kind of legislation, while desirable from a carbon reduction standpoint, brings with it an enormous set of challenges that we haven’t addressed yet,” said Randy Hardy, an energy consultant and former administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration. There is no mention of nuclear energy as an option in this article.
I wrote a letter-to the-editor-response to the this article (Aug. 06, 2021) which said, “If one or more small modular reactors were built in our state, many of the problems meeting the 100% clean energy target mentioned in the article would go away.” I continue to believe that to be true.
The irony of nuclear energy in Oregon: American have mixed feelings about nuclear energy, and Oregonians are no exception. This ambivalence is exemplified by the fact that Oregon has a 42-year-old ban on building new nuclear power plants yet is home to NuScale a major nuclear energy company that is developing a next generation reactor. So, what is the status of nuclear energy in our state and what should it be?
Oregon’s moratorium on building new nuclear power plants was passed as an initiative in 1980 in a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment, intensified by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. After this law was passed, Oregon’s only nuclear reactor, Trojan, dating from 1967, continued to operate for a while. Initiatives on the ballot in 1986 and 1990 would have effectively closed it down but were defeated. However, just one week after the 1990 election, a leak developed in a Trojan steam generator tube and PGE closed the plant to investigate. They never reopened it. The cooling tower is now gone, but the spent nuclear fuel remains in 34 dry casks at the Trojan site about 50 miles northwest of Portland. So far, there has been little political will to reverse the1980 moratorium.
On the other hand, in 2002, the US Department of Energy (DOE) funded a research project at Oregon State University (OSU) to develop a new kind of reactor, greatly reduced in size, that could be built in a factory and transported to a suitable site. It would be called a “small modular reactor” (SMR).
The next year, an OSU team, led by Dr. José N. Reyes*, began construction of a one-third scale model SMR (electrically heated… no nukes) to be used as a test bed. In 2007, this research project was transformed into a company dubbed NuScale that aimed to commercialize the technology. The company received support from both the DOE as well as major investors. It is now publicly traded and has a market capitalization of over $3 billion. The first NuScale reactor will be built at the Idaho National Laboratory site in Idaho Falls in 2028 – 30.
The SMR concept is now being pursued by multiple other companies (for example, Rolls Royce), but NuScale appears to be leading the charge. If you search on the internet for advanced nuclear reactors, you will turn up a plethora of articles on SMR’s. Last year the NuScale reactor became the first ever SMR to receive design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Image of factory-built NuScale reactor being transported to installation.
So, what are the problems with nuclear energy in general that might make an SMR an attractive alternative to a full-scale old-fashioned behemoth like Trojan. Any type of nuclear reactor has three important challenges to address: 1) Safety; 2) Cost and lengthy lead time to build; and 3) Radioactive waste.
Safety: First of all, rest assured that you won’t see a mushroom cloud rising over a nuclear plant because of an accident. Bombs require highly enriched uranium, not the kind used for nuclear energy production. Unfortunately, this conflation of nuclear bombs and nuclear energy has instilled a fear that is hard to allay.
So now a little quiz:
How many people died from radiation exposure from Chernobyl? Answer: 30 (possibly more but unknown).
From Three Mile Island? Answer: 0.
From Fukushima? Answer: 0.
Chernobyl in 1986 was clearly the worst ever nuclear plant accident: the deaths occurred mostly among first responders who fought the fire in very high radiation conditions. According to a UN-based study, a large population in Europe was exposed to higher levels of radiation from Chernobyl that could increase the incidence of cancer, but it is hard to know as the proportion is probably too small to detect in the large population exposed. Chernobyl was a horribly designed nuclear plant without a containment structure, and the accident was preceded by a series of gross operator errors. The denial and secrecy of the Soviet government following the accident was unforgivable.
The partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in 1979 is the worst nuclear accident in US history, but no one died. However, it happened shortly after the release The China Syndrome, staring Jane Fonda, that featured a fictional nuclear of plant meltdown. The overlap of the movie with the accident struck fear in the hearts of many Americans and helped to amplify a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment that nearly shut down nuclear plant construction in the U.S.
In 2011, a tidal wave flooded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, drowning the backup diesel generators that were supposed to keep coolant flowing in an emergency. No one died at the plant itself but panic ensued, and 50 deaths occurred among fragile patients evacuated from the local hospitals. Japan shut down all their reactors after the accident but is now restarting many of them.
So, another little quiz: 1. How many coal miners have died in the U.S. of black lung disease since 1968? Answer: 76,000. 2. How many people die each year of air pollution related to burning coal and natural gas for energy production? Answer: 10,000. So, in considering the safety of nuclear, it is important to ask compared to what? And that goes without considering the dangers to life and limb by global warming from carbon emissions.
Can the risks of nuclear be contained? Ensuring safety and security is the mission of the NRC. At times, the NRC gets criticized by the nuclear industry for being too stringent and by the critics of nuclear power for being too lenient. There are 93 commercial nuclear reactors operating in the U.S, today at 55 locations in 28 states, producing 20% of our electrical power. With one non-lethal nuclear accident in about five decades, the NRC seems to be doing a decent job. It now has the task of defining licensing requirements for new innovative nuclear reactor designs (beyond the scope of this article) that can’t be evaluated by previous criteria but may well be safer and more efficient. The staff at the NRC will be busy in the coming years. In the whole world, there are 440 nuclear reactors with 53 under construction, 15 of those in China. Other countries tend to follow the lead of the NRC on regulatory policy.
All Generation IV reactors being built, or are under development, include enhanced safety features, and SMR’s appear to be especially safe. The most likely consequence of any nuclear plant accident is a meltdown, but that will be almost impossible for a NuScale SMR because the reactors would be placed in a large water bath (see illustration) so that cooling would be completely passive, independent of any external power supply or water pumping system. A completed power plant could house several SMR’s (6 – 12) in the same water bath and generate about as much power as a full-sized conventional single reactor plant. Also, safety would be enhanced, as each identical factory-built SMR would be uniform and of highest quality. The fuel would be divided so that each reactor would have a smaller amount of radioactive fuel. In addition to the SMR, there are many other new reactor designs being introduced that are aimed at safety; for example, reactors with fuels that can’t melt down and cooling systems that don’t require containment.
NuScale Power Reactor Building
Cost and Time and to Construct: The only nuclear plants under construction in the U.S are way over budget, have taken over ten years to build, and are still not finished. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way: a recently completed full-sized nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates was built by Korean companies on time and on budget.
With SMR’s, cost would be constrained by standardized manufacturing in a factory setting that would be much faster than on-site construction. The capital cost would also be reduced because a series of functional units would be installed one at a time, and each unit could begin operation, generating revenue, before the whole project is completed.
Waste Disposal: The Oregon moratorium mandates a solution to the problem of radioactive waste before any new reactors can be built. There is almost universal consensus that burial deep in the earth is ultimately necessary for used fuel. In fact, geophysical waste disposal is about to happen in Finland, the first country to successfully construct a deep underground repository in rock that has been stable for a billion years and is impermeable to water. Beginning in 2024 copper casks containing spent uranium fuel rods will be deposited there. It has been termed a “game-changer” because it proves that a geophysical repository for nuclear waste can be built: this problem is solved! The project involved extensive engagement with the local community to gain public acceptance. (Nuclear energy is now supported by the Finnish Green Party). With the completion of the waste facility and their newest reactor, Finland will be getting 45% of its electricity from nuclear reactors, and all the waste will be safely entombed. Sweden is planning a repository like Finland’s; likewise, repository plans are underway in Switzerland, France, and England.
Waste management is clearly a political as much as a technical problem as evidenced by the Nevada-wide NIMBY crusade that put a stop to the disposal facility at Yucca Mountain.
Sometimes the problem is exaggerated. The volume of waste is quite small; all of the nuclear waste accumulated through the years in the United States would fill one football field, 10 yards deep. In summary, nuclear waste is a serious problem but manageable.
Energy in Washington State. In 2019, Washington adopted the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) that is very similar to Oregon’s House Bill 2021. It mandates 80% zero carbon electricity by 2030 and 100% by 2045. In both states, the means of achieving these goals has been left to the utilities, but in Washington, Energy Northwest, a not-for-profit utility agency which today comprises 27 public utilities districts and municipalities in the state, commissioned a study to evaluate all its options through the next 20 years and beyond. In summary, the study found that levels of decarbonization called for by CETA would cause electric rates to unacceptably spike, unless the operation of the nuclear Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant were extended and there was a buildout of as new SMRs. In other words, achieving the goals of CETA would be extremely unlikely without nuclear.
Washington, unlike Oregon, is open to nuclear. The Columbia Generating Station near Richland, built in 2007, is the only functioning nuclear reactor in the Northwest, but that may not be for long. Recently the DOE has provided 80 million dollars to Grant County PUD to build a demonstration SMR made by X-Energy, a Baltimore-based company. Seattle-based Terra Power, founded by Bill Gates, is planning to build first-of-a-kind sodium-cooled “Natrium” SMR in Kemmerer, Wyoming to replace a PacifiCorp coal plant. Ultra Safe Nuclear is a start-up in Seattle that is developing microreactors about a tenth the size of a NuScale SMR; they like to call them “fission batteries.” Governor Inslee has encouraged nuclear R&D. In addition there are two companies hoping to develop fusion reactors (see below). (I sometimes wonder if a nuclear reactor could be built near Vancouver, WA to supply needed power to Oregon.)
Is Nuclear Necessary? In 2019, nuclear energy provided 50% of America’s carbon-free electricity, making it by far the largest source of clean energy. Notwithstanding, because of the antinuclear activism that began in the 1980’s, very few new plants have been built in the last 20 years. A book by Mark Jacobson from Stanford argued that 100% carbon-free energy can be achieved by employing only wind, solar, and hydro, and that nuclear is unnecessary. However, this assertion was strongly challenged by others, and most of the proposed pathways to net-zero energy production include nuclear along with renewables. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) publication, Net Zero by 2050 states that “long-term operation of the existing nuclear fleet and a near-doubling of the annual rate of capacity additions will be required.”
The intermittency of wind and solar is the main drawback to 100% renewables. Batteries can get you through hours but not days or weeks; consequently, some back-up is needed that is currently provided mostly by natural gas (methane).
Another drawback is land use. A plausible path to decarbonization, modeled by researchers at Princeton, sees wind and solar covering up to 590,000 square kilometers — which is roughly equal to the land mass of Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee put together.
Yet another problem is the need to transfer solar and wind energy from where it is produced to where it is consumed, requiring long transmission lines and a huge remodeling of the grid. The grid is already a mess, and proposals for new lines generates its own brand of NIMBYism.
Although the cost of solar and wind have fallen dramatically, calculations of energy from these sources do not always include the add-on costs of back-up power, land acquisition, and transmission.
Compared to wind and solar, nuclear is available 24/7, takes up relatively little space, and can be built near existing transmission lines. Nuclear could replace natural gas as baseload and backup power for renewables. In addition it can provide a direct source of high intensity “process” heat that is needed to make steel and to desalinate seawater.
Other sources of carbon-free energy. Besides wind, solar, and nuclear, are there other sources of clean energy that could replace coal and gas? It turns out that Oregon has some intriguing possibilities.
Geothermal: There is a potentially inexhaustible supply of energy stored in the molten rocks deep below our feet. When these very hot rocks are mixed with an underground source of water, they generate steam, and if there is an opening to the surface, the steam shoots into the air as a geyser. And if this steam can be captured, it will turn a turbine to make electricity. That is how the 22 geothermal power plants located in the Geysers Geothermal Field in northern California meet 60% of the electricity demand for the coastal region between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oregon state line. This is carbon-free energy, available 24/7.
Oregon does not have a natural geothermal field like the Geysers, but perhaps we could make one. Just pick a favorable site, drill a hole deep enough to reach the hot rocks, inject some water down the hole, let the water seep into the rocks, then drill a few more holes around the original water injection site and harvest the generated steam. The is a simplified picture of an engineered geothermal system (EGS), the kind being considered for a site near the Newberry Crater, southeast of Bend. The area has been studied extensively for 40 years and contains one of the largest geothermal heat reservoirs in the western U.S., and the hot rocks are relatively close to the surface.
Although the concept of EGS is straightforward, the economics are not there: the fuel is free, but the overall price for electricity, using currently available drilling and construction technology, is too high. But if you could drill down 3 miles, you can reach the rocks that could heat water to a “super-critical” 400 °C (750°F). With that intensity of heat, you could produce 10 times the energy compared to a 200°C well, greatly enhancing the economics of electricity production.
Wave energy: The waves off the Oregon coast are seething with energy. The challenge is to find a way to harvest all that thrashing and crashing without losing your equipment and investment in raging winter storms. Construction is almost complete on a $50 million open-water, grid-connected national wave energy testing facility seven miles offshore from Newport called PacWave managed by OSU. It will be open to companies from around the world who want a pre-permitted site to try out their wave machines, a critical step on the pathway to commercialization.
Offshore wind: Oregon (along with Northern California) has been identified as an ideal site for offshore wind generation. Offshore winds are steadier and stronger than on land: a turbine in a 15-mph wind can generate twice as much energy as a turbine in a 12-mph wind. Because the land drops off rapidly on the Pacific coast, offshore wind will require floating turbines, and these have yet to be demonstrated as practical.
Fusion: The knock-out punch for nuclear fission energy might be the invention of a working fusion reactor. Fusion is the form of nuclear energy that causes the sun to churn out heat and light. It occurs when two hydrogen nuclei fuse to form a helium atom. This only occurs in the context of enormously high temperature. Oregon has no fusion endeavors, but Washington state is home to two well-funded fusion start-ups, Helion Energy and Zap Energy. Practical fusion reactors have been tantalizingly close to reality…but just out of reach…for decades. But in the past few years, prospects for fusion have been grown dramatically, so who knows?
Hydrogen: Hydrogen, like gasoline, can store and transport energy. Almost all currently produced hydrogen is extracted from methane (natural gas) using a steam/thermal process that is relatively inexpensive but generates a lot of CO2. However, it is possible to produce “green” carbon-free hydrogen by electrolysis that uses clean electricity to break it apart from water. The cost of making green hydrogen is mainly dependent on the price of electricity, and as the cost of renewable energy has dropped, the economics are beginning to look feasible.
Nuclear energy could also supply the electricity for electrolysis when not needed for by the grid. Furthermore, in the future, nuclear might be able to produce hydrogen by a very high temperature thermochemical process that does not use electricity.
With large federal grant funding for hydrogen development becoming available, Oregon and Washington state are now collaborating to see if a regional “hydrogen hub” could be built in the Pacific Northwest.
In summary, there are several tantalizing prospects for energy production in Oregon that could displace coal and gas. It would be nice if a technological deus ex machina appears in this story, but in the meantime, we have a realistic, time-tested way to fill the gap in energy production; namely, nuclear.
So, I am an environmentalist for nuclear. Yes, nuclear power has inherent problems, but I think they are manageable. I am all for building solar and wind as fast as possible, but from my reading, it seems unlikely that these renewables alone can do the job; nuclear needs to be part of the mix. In my opinion, if Oregon is going to fulfill its commitments to reduce carbon emissions, it needs to reverse its moratorium and open the door to the next generation of nuclear energy.
*My interest in nuclear took off after hearing a lecture by Dr. Reyes about 10 years ago.
Robert Sack, M.D. is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at the Oregon Health and Science University. He is a specialist in sleep disorders and an enthusiast in addressing global warming.
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