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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Nuclear energy could be part of the solution

The Columbian
Published: June 6, 2023, 6:03am

In multiple ways, Friday’s edition of The Columbian reflected growing debates about energy production in the United States.

On Page A8, atop the lead story in the Clark County section, was a headline reading, “Nuclear power may again be on horizon.” The gist: Clark Public Utilities administrators are considering whether to participate in a feasibility study related to nuclear power generation.

On Page B1, leading the Life section, was a headline reading, “Activists show, discuss nuclear doc at Kiggins.” The gist: A screening of “Atomic Bamboozle” was scheduled to warn against the growth of nuclear power as a source of U.S. energy.

As the United States and other nations work to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and develop alternative energy, discussions about nuclear energy will be prominent. There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, with proponents focusing on the vast potential for carbon-free energy production and opponents focusing on the danger posed by nuclear plants and the waste they produce.

While there are strong arguments for and against, nuclear energy warrants consideration as we work to mitigate the threat of climate change. Wind, solar and hydro sources should be the focus, but there is room for nuclear energy to be part of the solution, particularly in parts of the country that are not conducive to renewable sources.

Such discussions have been held in the past. Starting when the Yankee Rowe station came online in 1960 in Rowe, Mass., nuclear energy was viewed as a panacea. That quickly changed. Concern grew about waste; a partial meltdown in 1979 at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island highlighted the dangers; and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine directly led to 31 deaths and generations of environmental degradation.

The safety of nuclear power plants remains a concern. But the United States has more than 80 active plants, operating safely while producing approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The Columbia Generating Station, near Richland, produces 10 percent of Washington’s energy.

Now, Energy Northwest has invited Clark Public Utilities to participate in a feasibility study on a small nuclear reactor development. Energy Northwest officials have sought $200,000 in ratepayer funds for the study, which is projected to cost $4 million.

Clark Public Utilities’ three commissioners — who are elected — have wisely sought more time, with Commissioners Nancy Barnes and Jane Van Dyke requesting a delay. The Columbian reported: “Commissioner Jim Malinowski, who sits on Energy Northwest’s board of directors, advocated for Clark Public Utilities’ involvement.”

As a member of Energy Northwest’s board, Malinowski should recuse himself from future discussions and votes about the issue. But that will not reduce the need for robust consideration, both locally and nationally.

Recent debates have created odd political alliances. Both the Obama and Trump administrations promoted efforts to develop nuclear energy, with Obama’s energy secretary saying: “Nuclear energy remains very important. It remains by far the biggest source of carbon-free electricity.” And last year, the Biden administration provided $150 million in funding through the Inflation Reduction Act to enhance nuclear energy research and development at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.

Concerns about the dangers of nuclear plants should not be ignored. But as we work toward a clean-energy future, nuclear energy is likely to be a valuable piece.