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Nuclear Power in the Northwest

This past year has not been kind to Energy Northwest and its 1,170 megawatt Columbia Generating Station (CGN), which generates enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle. In late 2012, BPA and Energy Northwest studied the financial value of the CGN nuclear power plant in light of low wholesale fuel prices in general and historic low fuel costs for natural gas-fired plants in particular. They concluded that continuing to operate the plant was the most cost-effective option for Northwest consumers. 

However, in December of 2013, a report developed by the respected Portland consulting firm, McCullough Research, concluded that power from this plant is considerably more expensive than power from other sources. According to the report, Northwest ratepayers could save at least $1.7 billion over the next 17 years if the plant was shut down. The McCullough report, which was commissioned by the Oregon and Washington chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility, also concluded that if BPA, the purchaser of the entire output of the plant, had bought an amount of electricity equal to the plant’s output in Fiscal Year 2013 from the wholesale market rather than from CGS, the cost to Northwest ratepayers would have been over $200 million lower. The report concluded with a recommendation that the plan be decommissioned in 2015.

A second report, commissioned by Energy Northwest and prepared by another respected firm, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, concluded that the plant is economical to operate until the end of its anticipated life in 2043. This report finds that the continued operation of CGS will save consumers $1.6 billion over that time period, compared to the next lowest-cost option of closing the plant and replacing its output with a natural gas-fired power plant.

The most recent report by McCullough Research evaluates a 2012 transaction in which Energy Northwest purchased $687 million worth of nuclear fuel components from a antiquated nuclear power plant in Kentucky. Both BPA and another federal agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, played roles in the complex transaction. The report calls the environmental consequences “severe” and the economic consequences “very negative” since Energy Northwest will never need most of the nuclear fuel components. 

The “dueling reports” have generated regional and national attention.  In a follow-up to the latest McCullough report, Newsweek suggests that Kentucky’s two Republican senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, engineered the deal to save union jobs in advance of the 2012 congressional elections. Meanwhile, a commentary in Forbes titled “Irresponsible Physicians Oppose Nuclear Energy “ insists that “most everything in the (McCullough) report is irrelevant and basically an argument for “why I hate Columbia Generating Station.” The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has announced that it may take up the issue of the future of nuclear power in our region in its next power plan. 

We will review the reports, explore the controversies, and invite Robert McCullough and a representative of Energy Northwest to offer their perspectives in class.

(Image credit: www.theenvironmentalblog.org)