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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

First Annual Clean Energy Forum at the Columbia (nuclear power) Generating Station

Photo Credit Utilities Service Alliance

I was recently invited to attend the first annual Clean Energy Forum, hosted by Energy Northwest in Richland, Washington, which included a tour of the Columbia Generating station.

The Tour

We were greeted at the security gate by three polite security guards who inspected the bus and checked our photo IDs against a list. This level of security isn't unique to nuclear power stations. You would have to go through a similar procedure to take a tour of Hoover dam. We also had to leave our cell phones on the bus (which would also be the case should you ever get the chance to take the highly recommended Boeing, Everett factory tour).

Next, we had to pass through metal detectors very similar to the ones I had to walk through at the airport. Between the airports and tour, I passed through metal detectors four different times on this trip.

We were given radiation dose badges (to document that exposure levels were well-below any amount that could possibly affect health).

We saw the control room mock-up where crews are trained to staff the real control room. They ran through a simulated core shutdown from an earthquake (including a shaking floor and emergency lighting), which took only a few seconds to complete. It looked complex but I doubt that there were many more gauges, lights, and switches in that control room than you would find in a 747 cockpit (between 365 and 970 of them, depending on model). Because a control room does not have to fly, the gauges and switches were quite large and widely spaced in comparison.

 Photo of 747 Cockpit National Air and Space Museum

The rest of the tour was pretty much like any other tour through an industrial facility, pipes, pumps, noise. The highlight for me was looking down onto the top of the nuclear power core. So much electricity from so little space.

We were also shown a cooling pool filled with used fuel. Divers are sometimes hired to do maintenance in these pools. The taxi driver who took me back to the airport explained that just three feet of water would shield the diver from radiation. More from my taxi driver later.

Sketch of Used Nuclear Fuel Cooling Pool

I was hoping to see the dry cask storage area and maybe take a walk around a cooling tower, but no such luck. These structures are located outside and ambient temperatures were approaching 100 degrees F. Too hot for a long stroll in the sun. Consider reading James Conca's article: America's Heat Wave No Sweat For Nuclear Power.

View inside of a typical cooling tower

Below is a an animation showing how the Columbia power station works. It's pretty much like any other thermal power station (solar thermal, geothermal, coal) except for the source of heat energy that makes steam.

 The Forum

The Schwag

You can find my review of Pandora's Promise on their website here.


Although this power station is over three decades old (middle-aged for a nuclear power station), costs of production have dropped 20% since 2009, in part because improvements have allowed it to produce 70 more megawatts of power. It also recently set a record by continuously producing power without stoppage for just short of two years.
Small Modular Reactors (SMR)

NuScale Power gave a short presentation. NuScale is a company developing small modular nuclear power stations which will be built in a factory and trucked to a construction site for assembly. The most appealing aspect of these to me is their potential to be used at the brown sites occupied by closed coal power stations which already have transmission lines and sources of cooling water etc.

Their simplicity is also very appealing. In the event of losing all external power, the reactor will cool off passively without moving parts (pumps, valves, etc).

Correcting Public Misconceptions

In light of recent actions by antinuclear groups, Energy Northwest has been taking a more active role in correcting some misconceptions:

This was a "clean" energy forum, not a nuclear energy forum. Northwest Energy also owns and operates hydro, wind, and solar stations. Their Twitter page is titled "Green energy from nuclear, wind, hydro, solar." A quick Google search for the terms green and clean energy finds that nuclear fits those definitions as well as hydro, wind, and solar. The definitions will sometimes require the source to also be renewable, but that's cheating. Renewable is not a synonym of clean or green and contrary to what antinuclear organizations want you to believe, renewability is not the overarching concern right now.

Consider reading James Conca's article on this subject: Is Nuclear Power A Renewable Or A Sustainable Energy Source?

With the exception of biomass and biofuels, nuclear, wind, solar, and hydro are all low, or zero emissions sources, which, in my humble opinion, is the term I think we should be using instead of vague ones like renewable, clean, and green. Better yet, how hard is it to list all of the sources you're talking about (nuclear, wind, solar, and hydro)?

Polls have shown that 93% of the people who live in Richland are in favor of nuclear power. Oddly enough, polls have also shown that these same people think that only one-in-five other people favor nuclear energy. In other words, they think they're surrounded by people who are antinuclear. But that turns out to be yet another misconception. From a 2015 national poll:
The survey finds near-unanimity on the value of energy diversity. Ninety-six percent of Americans believe it is important to maintain energy diversity; 76 percent consider it very important to do so. Similarly, 86 percent of Americans say “we should take advantage of all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro and renewable energy, to produce the electricity we need while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
My Conclusions

The antinuclear Seattle City Council (hundreds of miles away from Richland) recently unanimously passed a resolution opposing nuclear energy.

I could be wrong but there appears to be a slight cultural divide between the two communities:
Snapshot of body-painted bicyclists I took at this year's Seattle Fremont Solstice Parade
Another story told by my cab driver was being asked by visitors if he was afraid to swim in the Columbia river with all of the radiation leaking into it. His response was that it would be diluted to harmless levels by the river, and any leaks would be coming from liquid waste stored in old underground tanks from the production of military weapons, not from the operation of the nuclear power station. It was heartening to meet a cab driver from Richland who was better informed about nuclear waste at the Hanford reservation than both Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Seattle City Council.

The immediate concern for some U.S. nuclear power stations (but not all) is to weather the historically low price of natural gas. This could be done via a price on carbon or a modest subsidy per unit energy. And in fact, New York has just led the way in doing the latter, essentially putting a defacto price on carbon with a modest subsidy for some nuclear (both ideas reduce the use of natural gas).

See James Conca's latest article: Cuomo Accepts Nuclear Is Clean For Upstate New York

I'll finish with some quotes from a Simpsons episode where Lisa has grown up and is now president of the United States:

Lisa: If I'm going to bail the country out, I'll have to raise taxes, but in my speech I'd like to avoid calling it a "painful emergency tax carbon tax."
Milhouse: What about, "colossal salary grab a nuclear subsidy?"
Lisa: See, that has the same problem. We need to soften the blow.
Milhouse: Well, if you just want to out-and-out lie tell the truth ...Okay, we could call it a, "temporary refund adjustment zero-emissions credit."
Lisa: I love it.
Milhouse: Really? What else do you love, Lisa?
Lisa: Fiscal solvency.
Milhouse: [disappointedly] Oh. Yeah, me too.

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