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Numbers Debate Rages Over Northwest Nuclear Plant

Energy Northwest
The Columbia Generating Station in southeast Washington is battling for public opinion.

There’s a new debate raging over the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power plant. But it’s not about safety or how to dispose of nuclear waste.

This debate about the Columbia Generating Station in southeast Washington focuses on dollars and cents. A new report raises questions about whether the plant pencils out for the region.

But the facility’s owners are fighting back with their own numbers.

Both the nuclear plant owners and those who want the Columbia Generating Station shuttered accuse each other of comparing apples to oranges in their dueling reports. The heart of the debate: Would it be more expensive to continue running the nearly 30-year-old nuclear power plant or to shut it down in the next few years?

A shifting energy market

“We could go out today, pick up the phone, call a market participant and get a better price than what we’re seeing in the Energy Northwest 10 year plan,” says Robert McCullough, a long-time energy and policy expert.

His new report was commissioned by the Washington and Oregon branches of Physicians for Social Responsibility. It’s an anti-nuclear group. But McCullough says he had total editorial control over his findings. He says his numbers show that closing the Columbia Generating Station would save $1.7 billion over 17 years.

One reason: cheap, domestic natural gas has dramatically shifted the energy market.

“I wrote in the Oregonian early this year, that the U.S. had become the largest oil producer in the world," says McCullough. " And several people wrote me and asked me how did that happen? Well the fact is with better technology we’ve been finding a lot of oil, and as we search for oil we’ve been finding even more natural gas.”

McCullough isn’t proposing to shut down the nuclear plant right away. Instead he says, next time it needs an expensive maintenance upgrade it would be cheaper to buy that same power on the market.

Bigger carbon footprint?

The Columbia Generating Station is owned by Energy Northwest, a consortium of utilities across Washington. It has its own report by an energy consulting firm from Cambridge, Massachusetts. That report says the region needs to have a physical plant – or consumers will pay too much when power rates or demand shift.

Larry Makovich, the lead researcher on the study says, “It is not realistic to think that you can continue to just pay for the fuel and operating cost of power plants, and that you can do that long-run and never have to pay for the costs associated with building the power plant and putting it in place.”

And Mike Paoli, a spokesman with Energy Northwest, adds: by replacing nuclear energy with a natural gas plant, the Northwest would be emitting more pollution into the atmosphere for the same amount of power.

“When you start to talk about natural gas," Paoli says, "you’re now talking about a carbon footprint that’s 15 times greater than nuclear.”

Physicians for Social Responsibility says Energy Northwest isn’t counting the emissions created by obtaining and transporting its nuclear fuel. And with that added in it doesn’t make the Columbia Generating Station carbon free.

Despite this battle over the region’s nuclear future, Bonneville Power Administration says the plant is a rock in its energy mix. The agency points out that the plant has fuel to last until at least 2028, and its federal license was recently renewed for about another 30 years. 

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.