Atom's Eve

While environmentalists squabble, nuclear power is on the rise.

In the mid-1960s, a couple of counterculture kids named Stewart Brand and Denis Hayes met at Stanford. Brand had traveled with Ken Kesey as part of the Merry Pranksters, and Hayes had recently returned from hitchhiking around Africa. Each went on to help launch the environmental movement: Brand created the bible of commune living known as the Whole Earth Catalog and Hayes organized the first Earth Day—which celebrates its 40th anniversary next month.Today, Brand lives on a tugboat outside San Francisco and Hayes is the head of Seattle's Bullitt Foundation, one of the most important environmental grant-giving organizations in the Northwest. They recall their early achievements in the documentary Earth Days, which premiered at Sundance last year and screens on PBS in April. But while they speak fondly of each other, policy-wise they're at odds.In Brand's view, Barack Obama's announcement last month that the federal government would guarantee up to $54.5 billion in loans over two years to build nuclear power plants across the country was a win for the environment. Brand believes going nuclear is the key to shutting down coal power plants, which he says is an essential step in combating global warming. Hayes, meanwhile, describes nuclear power with imagery that bespeaks his hippie roots—"spherically senseless," he says, meaning: "It makes no sense no matter how you look at it."Greens are divided over atomic energy. Brand has been called an eco-traitor, as has Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, another nuclear proponent. Long-standing anti-nuke groups like the Sierra Club are still officially opposed, but individual members, like former chapter chair Scott Howson of Virginia, are dissenting. The same rift is showing up among politicians: Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who launched the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, says he backs nuclear energy, while former veep Al Gore disagrees.Until now, the debate has been largely academic. But with 13 plants seeking approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Obama on board, the split within the environmental movement could be the key to overcoming the last political opposition to nuclear power in the U.S. Three decades after construction of new reactors stopped following the accident at Three Mile Island, the country may be at the dawn of a new nuclear age. Many players from the old days are back after a long exile, while innovative businesses, backed by the likes of Bill Gates, say their technology will make nuclear power cleaner and cheaper than before.In Washington state, a group of local power agencies, led by a veteran of the infamous Washington Public Power Supply System—perpetrators of the biggest municipal-bond default in U.S. history—have pooled their money to study how so-called "backyard" reactors might be built in the Northwest. They've been meeting with state legislators and other Olympia officials, laying the groundwork for building permits. They're hoping to bring more plants to the birthplace of nuclear power: the Hanford Reservation in southeastern Washington, where the first atomic bomb was built, and where cleanup from the Manhattan Project continues to this day.Though he still sports a Ditka mustache, Jack Baker actually left Chicago 28 years ago, when he came out to Richland, Wash., to be a nuclear engineer at WPPSS. His timing couldn't have been worse.The U.S. had recently experienced the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pa., on March 29, 1979. In response, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others gave a series of concerts under the name Musicians United for Safe Energy, and on Sept. 23 of that year, 200,000 people flooded a New York rally, hosted by the musicians, to oppose nuclear power plants. A documentary and album of the concert series was released, entitled No Nukes. Browne, Raitt, and company made the cover of Rolling Stone.And that was just the political side. The '70s had also brought dramatic inflation and sky-high interest rates that eventually crippled the taxpayer-owned agency Baker came to work for.By the time Baker arrived, WPPSS had started construction on five nuclear power reactors around the state: three on the Hanford Reservation and two more near the Satsop River at the southern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. But as the cost of the project rocketed from $5 billion in 1975 to $24 billion in the early 1980s, and public opinion turned against it, WPPSS was forced to halt construction. Its plants not operating, WPPSS didn't have enough revenue coming in to pay its debts. As a result, it defaulted on $2.25 billion in municipal bonds. The default insured that the agency will forever be known by its acronym, pronounced "Whoops." (To escape the legacy, the company later changed its name to Energy Northwest.)The only nuclear power plant WPPSS succeeded in opening was the Columbia Generating Station, which started delivering power in 1984. Today, in the distance behind that plant, the remnants of two other reactors sit unfinished, like Roman ruins. Over in the town of Satsop, abandoned cooling towers built by WPPSS off Highway 101 have become a roadside tourist attraction. An office park and conference center is now nestled on the grounds between the two towers.Baker stayed at Hanford to manage the station, and eventually became interested in alternative energies like wind and solar. He launched the Nine Canyon Wind Farm near Kennewick in the late '90s, and added solar panels at one of the abandoned reactor sites. But over the past few years, he says, it's become increasingly clear to him that the state will need more clean energy than it can get from sunshine and breezy days.In February 2007, Governor Chris Gregoire signed an executive order calling on the state to reduce its carbon emissions to less than half of 1990 levels by 2050. Over in the other Washington, Senator Maria Cantwell is pushing a bill calling for a reduction in carbon emissions of more than 20 percent nationwide by 2020.To help further that goal, local environmentalists have been lobbying hard to close Washington's one coal-fired power plant, located in Centralia, which the Sierra Club claims is the biggest source of carbon emissions in the state. On Feb. 27, 200 people joined the club in a protest in Olympia, carrying signs saying "Coal poisons our families." The club is hosting a forum on the plant at REI on March 22.But the much-vilified plant provides around 10 percent of Washington's energy. If it closes, Northwest utilities will need to replace it as a source of power—as well as deal with future population growth. Over the next 20 years, 3.7 million people will move to the Northwest, according to projections from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an eight-member panel created by Congress to advise Northwest states on energy and the environment. And, the council notes, the dams that generate most of the hydroelectric power for the region are already running at capacity. (Not to mention that many environmentalists want to tear those dams down.)Conservation Council Vice Chair Dick Wallace, a former official with the state Department of Ecology, says he believes much of the new power demand can be met by saving energy in other areas—such as retrofitting buildings or requiring refrigerators and TVs sold in the state to meet efficiency standards. But that won't be enough, he says. His council is recommending building natural-gas plants—not nuclear—to make up the difference.Baker contends that gas plants create 40 percent as much carbon pollution as coal. He thinks there's really only one way to increase our power supply while substantially decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases we're releasing into the atmosphere. "[Politicians] can't meet their national commitments without a base load generation [a source of continuous energy, rather than an intermittent source like wind or solar power] that's carbonless," he says. "And that's nuclear."Last month at a meeting between governors and Obama at the White House, Gregoire expressed support for nuclear energy, saying: "Options that were off the table now are on."The same month, no less a personage than Bill Gates dropped an ecobomb on the energy world with a lecture titled "Innovating to Zero." Speaking as part of the TED Talks series in Long Beach, Calif., Gates acknowledged that climate change hasn't traditionally been part of his philanthropic focus. The foundation headed by Gates and his wife Melinda is known for putting its efforts more toward education and health care in the developing world. But global warming matters there too, Gates said: "The climate getting worse means that many years their crops won't grow."Gates said that according to scientists he consulted, total global carbon emissions would have to be brought to zero in order to stop dramatic climate change. And that means shutting down the coal-power industry, which the Department of Energy says supplies about half the power used in the United States."We need energy miracles," Gates said. And he said his listeners might be surprised to hear that he's backing a company that takes "the nuclear approach." He was referring to a Bellevue-based venture he's funding called TerraPower that aims to use nuclear waste to power reactors.All this pro-nuclear fervor has reinvigorated longtime anti-nuclear activists in Seattle. The Washington state chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an organization founded in the U.S. in 1961 to combat nuclear weapons proliferation, is opposing non-weapons nukes as well. The chapter recently started a Web site on the history of Hanford and the Manhattan Project, and is aiming to incorporate an anti-nuclear-power message as well, says the chapter's executive director, Cherie Eichholz. She sees the two as essentially indistinguishable. "The only meaningful solution to nuclear weapons is if they're never used," says Eichholz. "The way we feel about nuclear power is very similar."Seattle attorney Gerry Pollet founded Heart of America Northwest in the 1980s to advocate for people who lived in the vicinity of Hanford during the Manhattan Project days. He has been traveling the state the past couple of years, giving a presentation on college campuses called "Lessons From Hanford," in which he argues that a nuclear future will inevitably lead to more waste problems. "It is obviously one of the dirtiest technologies ever created on the planet," Pollet told Seattle Weekly at a meeting on the Hanford cleanup at Seattle Center earlier this month.But it's not just the old guard who stand opposed. Umbra Fisk is the pink-haired, nerd-glasses-wearing public face of Grist, a popular, Seattle-based online magazine that aims for a non-humorless approach to environmental awareness. Fisk writes an almost-daily advice column for the site, often with video, telling people what dog food is the most eco-friendly or how to make your own club soda, or interviewing Brooklyn hipsters who get together once a week to fix their broken stuff. She's also staunchly anti-nuclear, and when one reader insisted she choose between nuclear and coal, she refused."Nuclear power is a potential Xtreme disaster waiting to happen," she wrote, "both in terms of operation and of 'homeland security,' cannot save us from our immediate crisis, and is a completely unresolved toxic-waste issue that we are handing down to the next hundred generations."Still, anti-nuclear activists seem to be losing the war for public opinion. The Gallup Poll, which has been asking people every year since 1994 if they support nuclear power, has found the pro camp steadily expanding since 2001, with support hitting an all-time high of 59 percent last year. According to Gallup, a majority of Democrats, traditionally the anti-nuke party, now support nuclear power.The Three Mile Island meltdown, and the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, are becoming distant memories while currently operating plants have remained free of major accidents. There are 104 plants, including the Columbia Generating Station, operating in the United States, providing about 20 percent of the country's power. And worldwide, new reactors are still being built. France, Belgium, and Slovakia each get more than half their power from nuclear. All those plants have served as living experiments in the safety of the technology.A Facebook group called "Real Environmentalists Support Nuclear Energy" claims 5,970 members, many of them younger students. One of the administrators of the group, Lance Kim, a 30-year-old nuclear engineering Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley, says that people growing up today, with little or no memory of past nuclear accidents, are more comfortable with the idea of getting their power from reactors. He adds that concern about global warming now trumps fears of meltdowns.In addition, with the exception of Chernobyl, concerns about ill health effects from radiation exposure have been undermined by the science. In 2002 the University of Pittsburgh released a study showing no significant increase in cancer-related deaths among people living in the vicinity of Three Mile Island. That year, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center released a controversial report finding no increased cancer rates among the so-called downwinders, people who live in one of the seven counties in southeastern Washington surrounding the Hanford site.Marla Gorsuch is one downwinder who has made peace with nuclear power. As a child she drank milk from her family's dairy cow, which grazed on grass thought to be contaminated by the Manhattan Project. Then in 1964 she moved even closer to the site when her husband, an ironworker, got a job on the Hanford reservation.Gorsuch, now 69, continues to fill out surveys and studies related to her "downwinder" status. But nuclear power has come to seem essentially harmless to her. "I think we've been schooled in it," she says, sitting on a bench outside a local doughnut shop in Richland, where she still lives. "We know that people go work, and return, and live as long as people anywhere else."Three generations of Julie Moore's family, from her grandfather to her siblings, have collected a paycheck from the nuclear-weapons project and, later, the power station at Hanford. Moore, a self-described "free spirit" who owns a bead shop in Richland called Dreamweaver's, says she doesn't have a problem with new power plants and has enjoyed the prosperity the nuclear industry has brought to her town.Moore has been happy to have her two daughters in the Richland school system, filled with the offspring of Ph.D.s working at Hanford labs. The high-school mascot is the "Bomber" and the logo features a mushroom cloud, but any cringing a parent might do is quickly overcome by the higher-than-average test scores there. "It's a great place to raise kids," Moore says.In 2007, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began receiving applications for new nuclear power plants for the first time in almost 30 years, prompted by the turning political tide. That year, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) proposed the first federal loan guarantees. To protest the bill, Raitt and Browne reunited, this time with Keb' Mo' and Ben Harper, to record a tweaked version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." But there were no mass rallies or magazine covers. Their effort resulted in a YouTube video and a two-paragraph mention in Rolling Stone.Waste is the one issue that can still cause people serious worry. In a poll of 1,010 American adults by Angus Reid Strategies, taken shortly after Obama's announcement last month, 81 percent of respondents said waste was their biggest concern about building new nuclear plants.Nuclear waste, both from weapons manufacturing and power production, was supposed to have gone deep underground a long time ago. In 1987, the federal government decided it would dig a giant hole inside Yucca Mountain, 80 miles north of Las Vegas, and make that the repository for the nation's spent nuclear fuel. The hole was supposed to be situated on federally owned land. But Nevada residents balked. Over two decades and billions of dollars, work on the site stopped and started as political battles raged in Washington. Obama effectively ended that fight in January when he asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to permanently withdraw Yucca Mountain's license for accepting nuclear waste. He had promised Nevadans, who have railed against the site, that he would close it.Washington state attorney general Rob McKenna said earlier this month that he would pursue legal options to stop the government from closing the Yucca Mountain site, which is where Washington had planned to send the waste from both Hanford and the Columbia Generating Station. In fact, the federal government is already being forced to compensate the power plant's owner, Energy Northwest. Last month a federal judge ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to shell out almost $57 million to the utility for forcing it to store waste onsite, rather than sending the material on to Yucca or some other disposal area as promised.Despite the award, Baker claims that storing waste isn't as big a problem as people think. Unlike weapons manufacturing, which produces a radioactive sludge, power production leaves behind waste rods. The rods from the Columbia station currently sit next to the plant in 19-foot-tall metal canisters on a cement pad. After 25 years of operation, 27 canisters are now full.To prove how safe they are, Baker tells a Seattle Weekly reporter "you can hug one." A manager at the plant shakes his head no, but allows me to stand right next to one. A dosimeter, a device that measures radiation exposure, remains at 0.0 after several minutes walking among the canisters.Hayes and other anti-nuke environmentalists say their concern isn't just about keeping people safe from the waste; it's that the waste could be stolen by terrorists to make "dirty bombs." Baker admits that it would be possible to turn waste into a weapon if you could get it. But he contends that stealing it from the site would be nearly impossible.Energy Northwest's security guards are no mall cops. They walk the grounds with handguns strapped to their hips and rifles slung across their chests. A cement blast shield with a hole for a gun sits aimed at the pad near the guard tower. Anyone wanting to go into the waste site must be patted down. More important, Baker says, each canister weighs 280 tons, so it's not as though they can be tossed into a pickup.Back here on the western side of the mountains, the Gates-funded company TerraPower says it has what seems like a fantasy solution to the problem: a nuclear reactor that can dispose of waste by using it as fuel.TerraPower is a unit of Intellectual Ventures, run by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive and all-around renaissance man. With a 27,000-square-foot Bellevue lab, nothing is off limits for Myhrvold's company, founded in 2003 with the vague mission of inventing things. (The company recently released video of its mosquito-killing laser.)TerraPower's no-waste nuclear reactor exists only on paper, and the target date for taking a design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is around 2020. Approval would take another decade, according to an NRC spokesperson.Many environmentalists weren't happy with Gates' TED Talk, where he pumped up nuclear power and TerraPower in particular. "Why Bill Gates Is Wrong" was the title of a piece by Grist staff writer David Roberts, who covers energy policy for the site. Grist says people like Gates present a false choice between nuclear power and carbon-emitting energy sources. Roberts argues that billionaires should be putting their money into making existing clean-energy sources like wind and solar more effective and widespread.The memory of WPPSS also looms large, and it's given Hayes his angle for fighting new nuclear plants in Washington state. He's allied himself with Jim Harding, a retired Seattle City Light energy forecaster, now a private consultant on the economics of nuclear energy. Harding thinks it's prohibitively expensive to build new reactors.He concedes that the federal loan guarantees announced by Obama make it more likely that plant construction will start. But he believes that the first proposed plant to get a loan guarantee, located in Georgia, only has a one-in-three chance of being completed. It's more likely, he says, that taxpayers will be on the hook for a plant that never gets finished—WPPSS all over again.Baker thinks he can overcome the cost issue. He's banking on so-called "backyard reactors." They're the brainchild of a joint venture that includes NuScale, a new firm spun out of Oregon State University. A traditional nuclear reactor is upward of 15 feet wide and 50 feet tall. (The cooling tower next to it is bigger still.) But NuScale and two other companies developing similar reactors say they can make them as small as three feet by eight feet.The idea is to build power plants capable of housing up to a dozen of these smaller reactors and to install them over time as energy demand requires. The biggest advantage, as Baker sees it, is a much lower up-front cost.The venture is still trying to get approval from the NRC. Meanwhile, Baker is working alliances locally. Last September he convinced nine small public utilities from places like Ferry, Kittitas, and Grant counties, along with the Portland-based Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, which represents another 16 utilities, to pool their money and examine how the tiny reactors might be built here. [Note: This story has been corrected, Kittitas, not Kitsap County, is involved in this study.]Baker is also sowing seeds of support in Olympia. He has been meeting with legislators, showing them a cost-comparison grid. He says that for a wind or solar farm to generate as much electricity as one small reactor, you would have to cover miles of land with hundreds of turbines and panels, each costing several thousand dollars. So even if wind or solar seems cheaper on its face, he says, it costs upward of eight times as much to generate the same amount of power with a field of solar panels as with a nuclear reactor."We're not ready to claim victory yet," he says, but "there's a very good chance that the economics are going to come out."Baker has already taken the first step: finding a place to put new reactors. Energy Northwest is finalizing a lease with the Department of Energy for another 20 square miles of high desert land on the Hanford site next to the Columbia Generating Station. With a nod to the environmentalists who oppose him, Baker says he's planning to fill much of the space with solar panels.He's calling it the Carbonless Energy Park. "It just sounds good, doesn't it?" he asks, steam from the Columbia Generating Station's cooling towers billowing up behind him.lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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