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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.

In Our View: Don’t rule out nuclear power in warming climate

The Columbian
Published: April 4, 2024, 6:03am

Reducing carbon emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels requires more than wishful thinking. It requires realistic notions about how to power our industries and charge our cellphones and, increasingly, fuel our cars.

With changing energy needs and the pressing crisis of climate change, the state of Washington is wise to explore the potential of nuclear energy. Those electric vehicles are not going to charge themselves; multiple power sources are worthy of consideration.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a supplemental state budget that includes $25 million for a study to weigh the benefits and risks of building a small modular nuclear reactor near Richland. The facility would be near the state’s only commercial nuclear energy facility.

Advocates say that small modular reactors hold potential as the next wave of nuclear energy production. One such reactor has been operating in Russia since 2020, and others are under construction in several nations, including the United States.

With a smaller footprint, modular reactors can be easier to site than traditional nuclear facilities. They also can be less expensive and quicker to construct. Yet, because the technology is relatively new, they require additional scrutiny, and there are critics who dispute the supposed benefits.

The Washington State Standard reports that Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group, wrote to Inslee, “Nuclear power, including small modular reactors, is too costly, too dirty, and too late to be part of the solution to climate change.” The organization promotes continued development of wind, solar and hydropower as our state continues to phase out fossil fuels.

The assertion that small modular reactors are too costly and too dirty is exactly the kind of thing that must be explored by state officials. Meanwhile, the suggestion that it is too late to be part of the solution is absurd. While climate change is a pressing concern, Washington and other states would be foolish to rule out any efforts that can potentially mitigate a warming climate.

All of this reinvigorates persistent debates about nuclear energy. 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 worth 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, the one near Richland, produces 10 percent of Washington’s energy.

Adding to these debates are questions about radioactive waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987 designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a national depository for radioactive material, but congressional infighting has scuttled that plan. A national solution for safely storing waste is essential for the formulation of a comprehensive energy policy.

At its core, that is the issue — policy that will allow the United States to cleanly and effectively meet growing energy needs. Increasing demand for electric vehicles, data centers and even cryptocurrency is outpacing population growth and requires innovative solutions.

In that regard, Washington is wise to consider nuclear power and the potential consequences.