By Don MacGillivray

Nuclear energy as a method of producing electricity has always been highly controversial. Still, the need to reduce global warming requires that every viable option must be seriously considered.

Nuclear fission was first used in 1954 at a thermal power station, where it turned water into steam to drive the turbines that generate electricity. Today, approximately 10 percent of the world’s electricity is generated by over 440 nuclear reactors in 31 countries.

By comparison, 65 percent of the world’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels. There are an additional 55 new reactors currently under construction and over 400 reactors are planned or proposed. France generates 75 percent of their electricity from nuclear energy.

The US gets 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear fission. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 50 of America’s nuclear reactors may cease operation within the next 10 years. Only one new nuclear reactor has been completed in the US in the last 30 years. America’s nuclear energy leadership is now shared among many other advanced countries.

Oregon’s first full size nuclear power plant was PGE’s Trojan reactor that produced 1,130 Megawatts (MW) making up 12 percent of Oregon’s electrical generation capacity. The plant was built 12 miles north of St. Helens, OR in 1976 amid great controversy and decommissioned in 1992.

Few know that for the last 52 years, a nuclear reactor has operated in SE Portland. Built by Reed College in 1968, this small 0.25 MW facility is used for research and educational purposes by students, faculty and, with permission, by the public.

TerraPower is one of many companies that is developing advanced nuclear reactor designs. Established in Bellevue, WA, Bill Gates is one its major investors.

They are developing a fast, “traveling wave” reactor to be safe and economical and produce much less waste. This is known as a “breeder” reactor,” built underground and operated for 100 years without refueling. They are also working on an advanced “molten salt/thorium” reactor that is expected to be efficient and nearly waste free.

Oregon State University (OSU) is home to the other active nuclear reactor in Oregon. Built in 1967, it is only 1.1 MW and it is used by the departments of science and engineering in as many as 96 academic courses and in over 100 projects annually.

OSU, with funding from the US Department of Energy, helped to create the NuScale Power company in 2000. A private American company, it is designing and building a small nuclear reactor expected to be operational within five years. It is headquartered in Tigard with a production facility located in Corvallis where much of its development is carried out.

NuScale Power is building a modular nuclear reactor that produces 60 MW. It is 65 feet tall by nine feet in diameter and weighs 650 tons. On-site there will be a containment building 76 feet by 15 feet, to hold 12 reactors and produce 720 MW.

Each module is kept in an underground pool running on low enriched uranium assemblies that use conventional light water-cooling methods. They will contain enough fuel to operate for about two years. The reactors will be built off-site and installed into a prepared location construction.

In neighboring Idaho, the Utah Area Municipal Power System expects to build the first modular plant in 2024. It will be operated by Energy Northwest, a public utility that provides power to 1.5 million customers throughout the state of Washington.

Energy Northwest owns and operates a diverse mix of electrical generation resources that include hydro, solar and wind facilities as well as the only nuclear power facility in the Pacific NW at the Columbia Generating Station.

It is the third-largest provider of electricity in the state of Washington. They are in the process of evaluating carbon-free options to meet WA’s Clean Energy Transformation Act that requires the state’s electrical power generation to be carbon free by 2045.

With Washington’s expanding population, there are new innovations, such as small modular nuclear reactors that are carbon-free, reliable, efficient and have seamless integration with renewable energy sources.

This will be expensive and additional sources of revenue will be needed. Their study concludes that carbon free, small modular nuclear generators would save $8 billion more than if electricity were generated through the addition of wind and solar facilities.

If significant ways are not found to remove carbon from the atmosphere or to store electricity from the variable wind and solar energy sources nuclear energy may be an answer.