Council digs in on the economics and politics of electricity

School was in session this afternoon at the Energy and Environment Committee, where Seattle City Light’s sources for electricity came up repeatedly. The first lesson was in the monthly report of Seattle City Light (SCL) CEO Larry Weis. Weis reported that the recent warm weather has led to greater snowmelt in the mountains, which in turn has led to an oversupply of hydroelectric power in western markets. That has depressed wholesale power prices — which would be a good thing if SCL were a net buyer, but it actually sells excess power generation from its hydro plants into the wholesale markets. That means that the utility is not meeting its revenue goals.

SCL has a mechanism for managing this: a “rate stabilization” account to smooth seasonal and weather-related fluctuations in revenues due to the power market. Excess revenues are added into the account, and when revenues drop money is withdrawn to balance the budget. But if the fund balance drops below $90 million, a 1.5% surcharge is automatically added to electric bills until the balance is back above $100 million. As of the end of April, the balance was $96 million, and Weis warned that the surcharge could be activated in the fall. The rate stabilization fund was established a long time ago, when the population of Seattle was smaller and SCL’s exposure to market fluctuations was much higher; the question was raised this afternoon as to whether the fund still needs to be that large. Weis and the Council staff plan to review that further.

But the agenda item that got top billing this afternoon was a resolution stating the Council’s opposition to nuclear power, in a discussion that in many ways was a replay of one from two years ago. Committee chair Kshama Sawant once again opened up her meeting to give environmental groups an unopposed opportunity to argue for the closing of the only nuclear power plant in Washington State, the Columbia Generating Station (CGS).

CGS has a colorful history, as the last remnant of the ill-fated WPPSS public utility that would attempt to build five nuclear power plants, but went bankrupt in one of the largest public bond defaults in the nation’s history. WPPSS was renamed Energy Northwest and continues to own and operate CGS.

Energy Northwest has not given up on its vision of more nuclear power in the region, but SCL has told them that it is not interested in investing in nuclear plants. The resolution under consideration today throws the Council’s backing behind that view in opposition to new nuclear power. Mayor Ed Murray also supports that view and has agreed to sign the resolution.

But the Mayor is not on board with shutting down CGS, and so today’s resolution is a compromise that stripped out the call for closing CGS from the original version. Sawant thanked Weis for his shuttle diplomacy to hammer out the compromise.

Nevertheless, today’s presentation was mostly another lengthy argument for closing CGS, as told by Charles K. Johnson of Oregon-Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Jerry Pollet and Peggy Maze Johnson of Heart of America Northwest. (aside: Pollet is also a well-known state representative; Heart of America is his job when the state legislature is not in session)

About 4.5% of Seattle City Light’s power comes from the Columbia Generating Station, through the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) which runs the wholesale electricity market in Washington and is under contract to purchase 100% of CGS’s 1170 megawatt production.  But BPA also manages much of the “green” production in the state, including wind and especially hydro power. 90% of SCL’s power is from green sources, and the utility is BPA’s second-largest customer. That gives SCL some serious political capital if the city wanted to push for the closing of CGS.

Johnson presented five reasons for closing CGS:

Poor design. The Mark II reactor has a design similar to the ill-fated Fukushima reactor in Japan. And we all know what happened there.

Earthquake danger. When CGS was built 45 years ago, far less was known about the extent of earthquake dangers in the Pacific Northwest, including on both sides of the Cascades. Recently the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has asked for CGS to re-assess the earthquake hazard risk and exposure for facilities on the Hanford nuclear reservation where CGS is sited. The first part of that work is done: assessing the earthquake magnitude and frequency. The second part is due next spring: assessing the facilities’ ability to withstand the range of earth movement likely to occur. But that hasn’t stopped today’s presenters from already drawing their own conclusions about the safety risk; they claim that CGS could see an earthquake twice the magnitude of what it was designed to withstand. And because the plant is on the Hanford reservation, surrounded by huge amounts of stored nuclear material (some in leaking tanks), the risk is multiplied: damage to any of the facilities there creates additional problems and hazards for the others.

Energy Northwest debates those claims, and they have a point: the activists are dramatically oversimplifying the way earthquake hazards are evaluated. Hanford has a number of nearby faults, and could also be affected by major earthquakes as far away as the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Washington coast. Here’s a map of just the nearby ones (red lines are faults):

seismic zone hanford 2

Each one of these has a separate profile: how frequently it has events, magnitude and length of the events, direction of earth movement, and frequency of the shaking. Each of these factors is important, as well as the distance from CGS, because they each determine how much damage a quake could do. Building foundations and structures are designed to withstand particular kinds of motion; they also have resonant frequencies that make them particularly susceptible to particular frequencies of shaking. The structural analysis needs to profile each of the faults and the kind of earth movement it would cause at the CGS site, then model what that would do to the CGS buildings. It’s entirely possible that a moderate quake at a low frequency could do far more damage than a high-magnitude quake at a different frequency. Or one that moved earth north-south could cause huge problems while one that moved vertically would do little damage. Or a moderate quake that lasted two minutes would be worse than a large one for fifteen seconds. Modeling earthquakes and earthquake resistance is very, very complicated.  We will need to wait for the full analysis next year to understand the real risk.

CGS generates radioactive waste. That residual material is dangerous for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Hanford is already the largest storage facility for nuclear waste in the western hemisphere, and it’s not doing a particularly good job of it. Underground storage tanks have been leaking radioactive, toxic and carcinogenic materials into the ground, and it is slowly seeping towards the nearby Columbia River.

CGS is expensive to operate.  They argue that CGS’s power is more expensive than the market rate, and is costing ratepayers $100 million annually beyond market costs. Energy Northwest debates those figures.

CGS’s electricity can be replaced economically with carbon-free alternatives.  This is undoubtedly true, especially with the rapidly-dropping price of solar power.  It is important to note, however, that it’s critical to have a diverse set of power sources in order to reliably deliver 24x7x365 for years. Renewable sources each have their strengths and their liabilities: solar doesn’t work at night and requires large areas; hydro is subject to seasonal rain/snow fall, not to mention climate change, and usually involves damming rivers which can cause problems for fish runs; wind power is subject to weather, and causes problems for birds. One absolutely can build a diverse portfolio with 100% renewable sources, but it takes work and it’s not issue-free. The current issues SCL is having with trying to sell its wholesale hydro power just points to how messy the renewable power business can be.

Even if you don’t agree with the activists’ arguments, it’s certainly true that nuclear power has no future in this state with the embarrassment of riches in renewable power here and south of us. And CGS is 45 years old, outdated, and reaching the end of its usefulness. It wouldn’t be surprising if SCL stopped buying nuclear power altogether in the next 12-24 months, and BPA announced shortly after that a target date for shutting it down. Of course, the seismic study due next June might end up accelerating that schedule further.

One comment

  1. Our thanks to the author of this article. Energy Northwest was not invited to the meeting – which apparently was about us – but the author does a nice job researching the opposing viewpoints in response to misrepresentations and outright errors presented by Physicians for Social Responsibility. We offer some additional points to clarify and correct the record.

    Energy Northwest does indeed have a vision for nuclear power in our region, but this vision does not include new nuclear generation in Washington during the foreseeable future. Our state simply doesn’t need the power, let alone the massive amount of power that comes from a single nuclear reactor (the Columbia Generating Station reactor is the third largest producer of electricity in Washington, behind Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams).
    The Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems, however, is looking for clean, baseload (think “always on”) power to replace coal plants in their service territory, and that power may come from a small modular nuclear facility in Idaho. Their only other option for baseload power is natural gas, but natural gas emits 60 percent as much carbon as coal, so it’s not nearly as attractive as carbon-free nuclear. We’d like to see the manufacturing portion of this project (a first-of-its-kind facility with global orders certainly to follow) – and the thousands of associated jobs – end up here in Washington.

    With regard to specific points presented by PSR:

    Poor design? Although Columbia’s reactor is a more advanced design…

    …than the “ill-fated” Fukushima reactors in Japan, proper perspective and understanding should first given to that tragic event which claimed more than 18,000 lives. If that number seems too big for one to personalize the magnitude of the tragedy, consider that one elementary school lost 74 of 108 students and 10 of 13 teachers and staff. None of these deaths were a result of the Fukushima meltdowns.

    The six Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors (and five others in the immediate area) safely shut down after the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake. In its wake, the Onagawa nuclear station, which was closer to the earthquake source than Fukushima Dai-ichi, provided temporary shelter for displaced local residents. By that time the city of Onagawa had moved a full five meters eastward and a meter downward. Later, when a former MIT professor of mine asked how Onogawa City residents knew to come to the Onagawa nuclear station, an employee of the owning Tohoku Electric Power Company told him, “We were the only place that had the lights on.” Like Japan’s plants, U.S. nuclear plant structures were designed and built to survive massive earthquakes.

    It was the resulting tsunami and 45-foot wall of water, not the earthquakes, which led to the chain of events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. Had the Japanese plants had oversight from an independent regulatory body that exercised the weight of authority wielded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and if they had the robust level of individual operator training and back-up equipment available at all U.S. facilities following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, those facilities would have survived the tsunami as well.

    Nevertheless, we know what the safety problem was; the tsunami flooded the facilities, destroyed emergency backup power systems, and the utility subsequently ran out of water to cool those reactors. The U.S. nuclear power industry is investing billions of dollars in equipment, facilities and training to incorporate lessons learned from the Fukushima accident into the current design and operation of all our nation’s nuclear plants. Thanks to the low cost of nuclear fuel (four $13 finger-tip-size pellets will heat the average American home for a year), this nation-wide investment has had little impact on the low cost of nuclear energy.

    That being said, a 45-foot tsunami will not be rolling through Washington’s southeastern desert any time soon.

    Earthquake danger? In December 2013…

    …the NRC denied a petition submitted by Oregon resident Chuck Johnson and the Physicians for Social Responsibility to shut down Columbia based on earthquake concerns. The NRC stated, “The petitioners provided no new information demonstrating an immediate safety concern to the plant or to the health and safety of the public.”

    “When CGS was built”…it was built upon 50 feet of compacted structural backfill soil – soil not susceptible to the liquefaction that occurs during earthquakes, which causes principal damage to structures. That’s because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning to build the Ben Franklin Dam near Richland, Wash., which would have raised ground water level, which would then have increased the liquefaction susceptibility of the soil beneath Columbia. In 1981 the Corps abandoned those plans, but by then the backfill was already complete. So, above and beyond being structurally designed to survive at least a twice-the-likely-scenario earthquake, Columbia also sits on 50 feet of liquefaction-resilient soil that it doesn’t need…but there it sits anyway.

    CGS generates radioactive waste? Yes it does;…

    …and hydro kills fish, wind kills birds and obstructs landscapes, solar destroys habitat, and natural gas pumps carbon into the air. But Columbia is not Hanford; it is not associated in any way with the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site – the nation’s largest environmental cleanup site (buried radioactive materials) created as a result of 50 years of Cold War nuclear weapons production. Unlike the tons of nuclear waste buried at Hanford, Columbia’s small amount of low-enriched used nuclear fuel is metal; it cannot leak.

    It is stored securely in above-ground, 185-ton, aircraft-impact resistant, concrete and steel, dry storage casks. These casks, holding most of Columbia’s 30 years of used fuel, occupy a surface space the size of a typical Barns & Noble book store, or a space 1/20th the size of Bonneville Power Administration’s nearby Ashe electrical substation.

    If reprocessed, the remaining fuel potential within those and similar casks at other nuclear facilities could power the next generation of nuclear plants for several hundred years with clean, carbon-free energy. (The United States currently does not reprocess used nuclear fuel because, again, at an average cost of just $13 dollars per uranium fuel pellet, it’s more economical to continue mining uranium.)

    CGS is expensive to operate? No, it’s not.

    The nearly 1,000 employees of Columbia Generating Station who PSR wants to put out on the streets, who pump $400 million into the local economy annually, will say as much. That’s because of, among other things, those $13 pellets, as well as the nuclear industry’s stabilizing effect on otherwise volatile natural gas prices.

    According to the Public Power Council, during the relatively short Western Energy Crisis of 2001, “the operation of Columbia Generating Station compared to the market saved Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers $1.4 billion.” Earlier this year a senior vice president for Bonneville said reduced costs and budgets at Columbia during the last rate period “actually contributed to downward pressure on our rates.”

    And the machine is in top condition as it approaches its mid-life. It is not “45 years old, outdated, and reaching the end of its usefulness.” Columbia began commercial operation in 1984 – 32 years ago – and is at most 40 percent into its operational design life, with plenty of safety margin built into its lifecycle. In March 2015 NRC Chairman Stephen Burns told the Senate that the commission intends to prepare for second license renewal applications, which would extend the total operating life of U.S. commercial reactors to 80 years.

    Economic benefit is only one measure of value. Another is environmental. At the nexus of the two is nuclear.

    All clean energy resources – wind, nuclear, hydro and solar – have a carbon footprint with regard to carbon emitted during fabrication, production, construction and transportation phases. Nuclear is as clean, and cheaper, than heavily subsidized wind ($6 billion a year from taxpayers compared to $0 from non-subsidized nuclear), twice as clean as hydro, and four times cleaner than solar. Annual operation of Columbia compared to the only replacement option – natural gas – has the carbon equivalent savings of keeping 600,000 cars off the road. This combination of low cost and environmentally friendly power is why Bonneville staunchly defends Columbia’s contribution to the Federal Columbia River Power System.

    CGS’s electricity can be replaced? No, it can’t,…

    …not economically at least, and certainly not with any other carbon-free-generation energy resource like wind and solar. Aside from hydro – which we’ve tapped out here in Washington – those other clean alternatives are intermittent, meaning they cannot generate power 24/7 to support the grid. Those sources can only augment the grid’s sole baseload options of coal, natural gas, clean-but-tapped-out hydro, and carbon emissions-free nuclear.

    A “sign in the sky.” All reputable organizations…

    …involved in the global climate discussion have come to the same conclusion: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, International Energy Agency and Energy Information Administration, as well as many individual scientists and environmental advocates, have said that the U.S. and world cannot achieve meaningful reduction in carbon emissions without nuclear energy.

    In President Barack Obama’s 2011 Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future he writes, “… beyond our efforts to reduce our dependence on oil, we must focus on expanding cleaner sources of electricity, including renewables like wind and solar, as well as clean coal, natural gas and nuclear power – keeping America on the cutting edge of clean energy technology so that we can build a 21st century clean energy economy and win the future.”

    Last year, Governor Jay Inslee issued a proclamation during Nuclear Science Week in Washington. The proclamation reads in part, “…nuclear energy in our state and nation is helping to reduce carbon emissions and plays a vital part in the state’s diverse mix of environmentally responsible energy generating resources…”.

    Last month at a Department of Energy summit meeting in Washington, D.C., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., weighed in on the need to keep our existing nuclear fleet going. “Nuclear energy provides critical baseload power [and] more than 60 percent of our nation’s carbon-free electric generation. Most American don’t realize that and I was one of them. When it comes to carbon-free, baseload power, nuclear is it,” Booker said.

    Our own Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., understands the issue as well. “It is vital that the United States continue to lead the world in clean energy, and nuclear may prove to be a key component in this effort,” Cantwell said at the same meeting.

    Eco-warrior Stewart Brand, author of 2009’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, in 2010 said, “I surprised myself. I used to be, you know, pretty much a kneejerk environmentalist on this particular subject. And then because of climate change I reinvestigated the matter and discovered that I’d been misled in many of the details on how nuclear works.”

    Most recently I met Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute and Time Magazine’s 2008 “Hero of the Environment.” He stuffed The Ecomodernist Manifesto into my hands, which was written last year in collaboration with Brand and 17 other notable scholars, scientists and environmentalists. (One of those was Robert Stone, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated director of the “fiercely independent” documentary, Pandora’s Promise, which tells the anti- to pro-nuclear conversion stories of leading environmentalists.) While acknowledging the cultural barriers to nuclear power, the authors assert that nuclear “represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy.”

    At a time when the world’s leading scientific institutions and many here at home are telling us climate change is a real and immediate threat – and that humans are a significant cause of that threat – PSR is asking the Seattle City Council to denounce the technology that currently provides more than 60 percent of our nation’s carbon-free electricity (20 percent of total U.S. generation). Is that the national leadership role Seattle – the city that championed the Kyoto Protocols – is seeking to establish?

    Looking closer to home, Seattle wants to dramatically reduce city sources of greenhouse gases to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The city hired experts from the Stockholm Environmental Institute to see if it could be done. They said it could, so the city is aggressively going after that goal. One of those experts at SEI is Karl Hallding, a co-author of Beyond Paris: Using Climate Change Scenarios to Manage Risk. In 2014 Hallding, an expert on China’s oppressive energy pollution problem, said, “An interesting sign in the sky is that … the share of thermal power, most of which comes from coal … that came on line in China in 2013 fell to around half for the first time thanks to the growth in alternative energy sources – hydro, wind, solar and nuclear.”

    Perhaps an SEI business card is still lying on someone’s desk at Seattle City Hall. Now would be a good time to give SEI a call for a brief education on nuclear energy’s important role in achieving a clean energy future.

    It’s always refreshing to see city governments do right by their citizens. In this case, Seattle, make some phone calls to people who have higher-education degrees and have published on this topic – a proper balance of pro and con – and ask them to come speak to you. Include them in the public dialogue. Then decide.

    Mike Paoli
    Chief Communication Officer
    Energy Northwest

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