Get used to the phrase “small modular nuclear reactor” and its abbreviation, SMR. A global debate about this old-made-new energy idea is already heating up, with big implications for the people and environs of the Pacific Northwest.
SMRs are either the cleaner, safer, cheaper future of nuclear power or the return of the same old bundle of hazards, dressed up in newly attractive camouflage.
“They’re going to make nuclear energy cool again,” said former Trump administration energy secretary Rick Perry (consistently mispronouncing the word “nuclear”) in a news clip featured in the new documentary film “Atomic Bamboozle.”
“Atomic Bamboozle” is the latest in a series of timely, social-issue documentaries directed by Jan Haaken, a retired Portland State University psychology professor. Last year, Haaken produced a film about the courtroom victories of local oil-train protesters called “Necessity: Climate Justice and the Thin Green Line,” which screened, along with a panel discussion, at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre.
The same will happen at a Wednesday screening of “Atomic Bamboozle” at Kiggins. Environmental activists featured in the film will discuss the potential resurgence of nuclear power in the Pacific Northwest through supposedly safe, small, factory-built nuclear plants.
Panelists are Cathryn Chudy and Lloyd Marbet of the Oregon Conservancy Foundation; Desiree Hellegers, English professor and director of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver; public interest attorney Dan Meek; Dr. Patricia Kullberg, former medical director of the Multnomah County Health Department; “Atomic Days” author Joshua Frank; and film director Haaken.
(Frank’s book about the decommissioned Hanford nuclear site in Eastern Washington, “Atomic Days: The Most Toxic Place in America,” is the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system’s “Revolutionary Reads” book for this year. Free copies of the book are available to all at library branches.)
Although small modular nuclear reactors are still more blueprint than reality, they’ve become a wedge issue among some environmentalists who are desperate to beat climate change, said Chudy, who lives in Vancouver.
“SMRs sound pretty cool but there are very big problems that they don’t want to talk about,” Chudy said during a phone interview with The Columbian.
“Atomic Bamboozle” reviews the troubled history of Oregon’s only commercial nuclear power plant, Trojan, which operated from 1976 through 1992 near Rainier, just across the Columbia River from Kalama. Trojan’s cooling tower dominated the skyline until it was demolished in 2006, but problems plagued the plant throughout its short life, including construction flaws, unexpected cracks, steam leaks and discovery of previously unknown earthquake fault lines nearby.
“We had assurances the plant was safe. The public relations around Trojan were amazing,” said Chudy, a pediatric mental health therapist at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland.
Chudy said today’s youth are struggling as never before with existential worry about a world that grown-ups have failed to steward. Proposed SMRs represent an opportunity to choose wisely and safely now rather than punting complicated problems into an unknown future, she said.
“Kids don’t trust adults to make good decisions,” Chudy said. “We are all putting our lives in the hands of people we elect … but I don’t think we can rely on them to steer the ship in the right direction without all of us being involved.”
Both Oregon and Washington have adopted clean energy policies for the future, Chudy said, but both include a loophole for nuclear power because nuclear plants do not emit carbon pollution.
She argues that nuclear power is actually a big cause of carbon pollution and a driver of global warming from many sources other than operating the plants themselves, including uranium mining as well as construction, decommissioning and materials transportation.
Necessary economies of scale are another serious question about nuclear power, Chudy added.
SMR boosters like them because they’re small. But what they contain is standard, old-school nuclear technology that’s simply operating on a tiny scale, M.V. Ramana, professor of physics, public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia, said in the film.
Early experiments with nuclear power started small too, Ramana said, but grew huge in pursuit of financial efficiency. Nothing has changed about that, he argues in the film, and new forecasts show the productions costs of nuclear power climbing.
“All nuclear reactors used to be small. The only way the nuclear industry could figure out to reduce cost was to go to larger reactors,” Ramana said. “There’s no way small modular reactors are going to be economically competitive.”
Soaring projected costs have led some members to drop out of a consortium of Western cities now pursuing an SMR on the Snake River in Idaho, according to Reuters.
The risk of nuclear accidents always remains, Ramana said in the movie. But siting decisions are made by politicians and investors in state and national capitals, far removed from the action.
“They’re not the people who are going to be affected,” Ramana said. “It’s common people living near these facilities who are going to pay the price.”
On-site impacts aren’t the only accident risks, Chudy added. Transporting hazardous materials on the nation’s crumbling rail lines has already led to fiery disasters within recent memory in places like East Palestine, Ohio, and even Mosier, Ore.
Perhaps the most significant problem with nuclear power remains the radioactive waste, which stays radioactive for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, Ramana said.
“There are no viable solutions for that,” Chudy said.
Numerous federal attempts to designate a single national repository for such waste — in places like New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and even Eastern Washington’s own Hanford — have failed. Decades after our use of nuclear power began, there is still no safe, permanent safe storage facility for radioactive waste in the U.S. Meanwhile, nuclear waste is stored at the plants that generate it.
An Oregon law has banned the development of any new nuclear plants until there’s a permanent federal nuclear-waste repository. But there are efforts now underway to repeal such state restrictions by SMR designer NuScale, Chudy said. Bellevue-based SMR designer TerraPower’s pilot project is planned for Wyoming. A project by SMR designer X Energy, long expected to be sited in Grant County in eastern Washington, is now headed for Texas, according to The Seattle Times.
“The question of what should be done with nuclear waste has been one forever characterized by deceit,” Portland attorney Greg Kafoury said in the film. “They’re going to pretend to have solutions, and then the solution is to give it to our grandchildren.”
Chudy believes efficiency, conservation and renewable energy — all deployed with greater smarts — are the only climate answers we really need.
“What kinds of energy choices are we going to make?” she wondered. “What kinds of harms will we do if we make the wrong choices?”