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Key to Oregon's Energy Future? Go Nuclear

by John C. Ringle
The Oregonian, April 20, 2005

There is a serious threat hovering over the Northwest economy. It's not the federal budget deficit, rising trade imbalance or the weak dollar. It's something much more mundane and more difficult to resolve: our long-term drought.

We are facing a prolonged decline in our supply of hydropower. The Bonneville Power Administration and our electric companies are scrambling to ensure an adequate supply of electricity over the next several years. But the bigger problem is our long-term outlook. And the answer to that problem -- if we want to continue to get our electric power from low-emission carbon sources -- must include an increased use of nuclear energy.

Our region is now in its fifth year of drought. No one knows how long it will last. Every indicator points to the effects of unnatural global warming. Climate studies by the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory forecast that by midcentury the Northwest snowpack may be less than half its historic average. But government leaders are not responding to the problem with the sense of urgency that is called for.

BPA, which supplies about 44 percent of the region's firm energy, says the supply of energy will meet regional needs for the next four or five years, assuming owners of power from new generators sell it here in the region. Conservation and improvements in energy efficiency will certainly help. But I am less optimistic about another solution -- relying heavily on wind power. It will play a larger role than it has in the past, but it is too variable to be considered as a large-scale resource that can power our economy for the decades to come.

Now, because of energy security problems connected with oil and natural gas and environmental problems with coal, people are once again talking about nuclear power. And leaders are listening. Supporting the construction of new nuclear power plants is a standard plank in President Bush's speeches around the country. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has proposed tax incentives to help build the first few advanced plants. And the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of energy experts, recently recommended expansion of nuclear power as one way to meet rising energy demand.

Here in the Northwest, our way of life doesn't depend on hydroelectric power, but it does depend on reliable sources of electricity. BPA's demand is expected to overtake supply as early as 2009. Something must be done now to guarantee an adequate energy supply for our future.

Look at the facts. There is only one nuclear power plant in the Northwest, and it supplies 10 percent of Washington state's electricity. Nationally, nuclear power provides 20 percent of the country's electricity, without polluting the air or releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And U.S. nuclear power plants produce electricity, on average, at less than a third the cost of gas-fired plants.

The Northwest should be on the forefront of an urgent national priority: developing a new generation of nuclear plants that would help us keep pace with growing consumption of electricity.

Despite nuclear power's outstanding record, there hasn't been an order for a new U.S. nuclear plant since the 1970s. How serious must the energy situation become before we pay attention?

The dangers of hydroelectric shortages in the Northwest have been obvious for years, and the consequences of our failure to react could last for decades. Our region can't afford to continue pursuing energy policies that ignore the need for -- and inherent advantages of -- nuclear power.

John C. Ringle of Corvallis is professor emeritus in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University.
25 Years Ago: BPA Withdrew Interruptible Energy
The Oregonian, April 20, 2005

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