Dead but not forgotten, the Satsop twin nuclear plants atop Fuller Hill near Elma have been back in the news this week in a six degrees of separation sort of way.
Sure, it’s been more than 25 years since the Washington Public Power Supply System – forever known as “WPPSS” – pulled the plug on the two partially built reactors, which were buried under an avalanche of mismanagement, cost overruns, schedule delays, questions about the safety of nuclear power and a lagging economy.
When the magnitude-9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami crippled Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant complex, my thoughts, and the thoughts of others, turned to Satsop. Here’s a case in point with a telling touch of irony that connects the two projects thousands of miles apart:
The geologic knowledge about catastrophic subduction zone earthquakes akin to the one that struck Japan grew in large part out of research conducted on the Satsop project.
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Geologic studies of the Fuller Hill site didn’t uncover any near-surface faults under the plant site that could compromise the project. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission went one step further, asking the U.S. Geological Survey to examine the possibility of a gigantic earthquake on the Washington coast, some 20 miles west of the Satsop plant.
Geologists scouring the coastline began to gather evidence of the Cascadia subduction zone, the place where the oceanic tectonic plate diving under the continental tectonic plate locks up, then breaks loose to cause most of world’s disastrous earthquakes. It’s the Pacific Ocean’s so-called “Ring of Fire.” South Sound residents live in it and so do the residents of northeastern Japan.
By the time both Satsop plants were officially terminated – 1994 – geologists, principally the U.S. Geological Survey’s Brian Atwater, had zeroed in on evidence that a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake of epic proportions occurred off the Washington coast around 400 years ago. Continued research on sunken coastal forests and tsunami-generated sand layers along the coastline have helped refine the date to Jan. 26, 1700, and pegged it as a magnitude-9 event, the same as the Japanese quake.
The same unflagging research has taught us to expect one of these mega-thrust events every few hundred years.
As a reporter who covered the Satsop project on a near daily basis during its construction years – 1977 to 1984 – earthquake hazards were part of, but not at the forefront, of the Satsop debate.
But the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island nuclear plant reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979, coupled with the release of the nuclear near-disaster movie “China Syndrome” the same year, eroded some of the support for Satsop, as did the more serious nuclear plant explosion and meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.
Now, 25 years later, readers have asked me this question this week: Is the design of the Satsop nuclear plants and Fukushima, Japan, plants the same?
The answer is no. Satsop reactors were pressurized water reactors designed by Combustion Engineering and featuring a robust containment system.
“They’ve proven to be most reliable reactors ever built,” noted Jim Lazar, an Olympia energy economist and longtime thorn in the side of WPPSS.
The Japanese reactors heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami are General Electric Mark 1 boiling water reactors, which have a containment system that critics say can be suspect in case of a natural disaster.
For the record, there are 23 of these GE reactors operating in the United States, but none on the West Coast, according to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
As workers risk their lives to bring the Fukushima radioactive releases under control, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the nuclear industry. As of 2009, there were more than 400 nuclear power reactors in the world, with more than half of them located in three countries – Japan, France and the United States.
Never one to shy away from predictions, Lazar offered the following fallout here in the United States from the Japanese nuclear disaster:
Owners of aging nuclear plants seeking extensions of their licenses will have a tough row to hoe, especially those in earthquake and tsunami vulnerable settings.
Proposed projects, which rely heavily on federal loan guarantees from Congress, face a tougher political and public sell.
“I’d rule out new nuclear power plants for the next 10 years,” he said.
The future of nuclear power will depend on the industry’s ability to agree on a uniform, scaled-down plant.
“I think little nukes make sense,” he said.
WPPSS was a multibillion dollar disaster. Ratepayers are still paying off the construction bonds for Project 3 and will continue to do so through 2018.
Public and private utility dreams of nuclear plants in Skagit County in the 1970s gave way to earthquake hazards and public opposition.
Western Washington – earthquake country if there ever was one – is home to nary a single giant nuke. I wouldn’t bet on that changing.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org