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Columbia River nuclear plant poses dire threat

By Susan Cundiff
November 20, 2013
Published in the Eugene Register Guard

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, the world watched in horror as scenes of devastation unfolded in Fukushima. Then we learned about the additional catastrophic events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, and the horror multiplied.

Since the Trojan nuclear power plant near Rainier, Oregon shut down in 1993, people in the Northwest may think we’re free from the threat of a similar nuclear disaster. Few realize, however, that there is a Fukushima-style nuclear power plant operating on the banks of the Columbia River — the Columbia Generating Station.

Never heard of CGS? Not surprising. It was originally known as Washington Public Power Supply System Nuclear Plant No. 2. You may remember WPPSS by its less flattering name: Whoops. Notorious for causing the largest bond default in the history of municipal finance, WPPSS became synonymous with reckless management. Consequently, WPPSS changed its name to Energy Northwest and renamed the power plant, omitting the term “nuclear.”

CGS is located on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash., 220 miles upstream from Portland. The plant generates only about 4 percent of the Northwest’s electric power, but poses considerable risk to residents of Washington and Oregon who share the Columbia River.

Designed by General Electric, the Mark II reactor is a version of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Although GE engineers and top management knew that its reactor design was flawed as early as 1972, the company continued selling reactors to WPPSS and several other utilities throughout the United States.

WPPSS sued GE in 1985 for breach of contract, but the plant, with its known design flaws — a containment vessel that is too small, a waste storage pool built five stories above ground, and a faulty design that allows a build-up of hydrogen that creates a risk of explosion — continues to operate today. Documents in that case showed that GE planned to do complete testing of the hardware only after operations began. U.S. District Court Judge Alan A. McDonald wrote in his decision, “The court can only view that as a fairly sophisticated form of Russian roulette.”

The reactor’s design is not the only problem. The plant is situated in an area that is vulnerable to seismic activity, wildfires and floods.

Built to handle a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, scientists now confirm that a 7.5 magnitude quake near CGS is possible. Indeed, the area experienced a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in 1872. The epicenter was 50 miles from Hanford, and 20 miles from where the Grand Coulee Dam has since been built. Seven dams are located above Hanford; several are earthen.

Are we in danger of a Fukushima disaster in our own backyard? Yes! Earthquake and flooding were the two precipitating factors in the Fukushima catastrophe. Proximity to Hanford creates a double threat. The plant sits just 16 miles from the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere — the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Of the 177 underground tanks on the reservation, 67 have leaked 1 million gallons of radioactive waste into the ground.

Wildfires are frequent in the region. As recently as 2012, fire burned 3,000 acres on the Hanford Reservation, closing two major highways that provide access to the site. Both Hanford and CGS have serious issues with hydrogen build-up, problems that require regular maintenance and ventilation to prevent explosions. If a catastrophe were to occur at either facility, the other plant would be within the hot zone and too lethal to allow workers to prevent a second catastrophe.

When Sen. Ron Wyden was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, he referred to nuclear weapons production as “the largest, most ultra-hazardous industry of its kind in the world.” As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he expressed concern over the lack of progress on clean-up efforts when he toured the Hanford plant earlier this year. He has also traveled to Fukushima to assess the danger to the West Coast posed by that disaster.

It is time to shut down CGS. The risks far outweigh the energy it produces. According to the Washington Nuclear Museum and Educational Center, a project of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, “As of April 2011, the Columbia Generating Station’s spent reactor pool had 558 metric tons of spent reactor fuel assemblies in it. This is 66 percent of what it is licensed to hold. The amount is twice what the Fukushima Unit 4 pool held when it caught fire. It is five times the amount in the Fukushima-Daiichi Unit 3 reactor.”

Japan has already lost its game of roulette. Do we want to be next?

Susan Cundiff of Eugene, Oregon serves on the national board of Women’s Action for New Directions.

Note: U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon) is no longer chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


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