Experts reach different conclusions about value of nuclear plant

The Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington

Two recent reports on the cost of power from the only operating nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest arrive at starkly contrasting conclusions.

One, commissioned by the Oregon and Washington chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and prepared by Portland-based energy consultant Robert McCullough, concludes that power from the Columbia Generating Station (CGS) is significantly more expensive than power from other sources. According to the report, if the Bonneville Power Administration, which buys the entire output of the plant, had purchased an amount of electricity equal to its output in Fiscal Year 2013 from the wholesale market rather than from CGS the cost would have been more than $200 million less. This report recommends that CGS be decommissioned in 2015. At current prices, according to the report, power from CGS could be displaced by market purchases in the long term.

The other report, commissioned by Energy Northwest, which operates the plant, and prepared by Cambridge Energy Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass., concludes that the plant is economical to operate until the end of its anticipated life in 2043. This report finds that the continued operation of CGS will save consumers $1.6 billion over that timeframe, compared to the lowest-cost alternative of closing the plant and replacing its output with a natural gas-fired power plant.

The Tri-City Herald covered this “dueling experts” dilemma in a Dec. 14 story.

Clearly, the two studies were prepared by experts and assess an important resource in the Northwest power supply. The fact that they arrive at polar opposite conclusions is a puzzle but also is an important issue for the region. Independent analysis of future resource costs is critical to making the best decisions about future sources of electricity.

There are uncertainties on both sides of the issue, such as the future cost and performance of CGS, safety considerations of nuclear power, and costs of alternative power supplies. Beginning later this year, the Council will begin a public process of revising its Northwest Power Plan, which the Council does every five years. The future of nuclear power in the Northwest is a topic the Council may take up.