Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Senators still support nuclear energy bill

Radiation from Japan detected in Idaho

Express Staff Writer

Idaho's U.S. senators say that even after the nuclear accidents in Japan following two natural disasters, they are still committed to supporting initiatives for nuclear power.

A bill called the Nuclear Power 2021 Initiative proposes building two small modular nuclear reactors and encourages nuclear energy use. The bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan, multi-state coalition that includes Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch, also R-Idaho.

"Oh yeah, we still support it," said Lindsay Nothern, spokesman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

The reactors could be built at the Idaho National Laboratory, said Risch spokesman Brad Hoaglun. If the bill passes, the Department of Energy would develop and test the reactors, which would be funded mostly through private investors.

The bill was introduced on March 8, three days before an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit northern Japan. The quake and subsequent tsunami damaged several nuclear reactors whose safety systems failed, prompting radiation concerns.

Radiation from the incident at the Fukushima nuclear plant has been detected by the Environmental Protection Agency in Boise rainwater. The EPA said the levels do not pose a public health risk, but the radiation highlights concerns about bringing nuclear power even closer to home.

Hoaglun said the senator's support stems from his belief that coal needs to be replaced with cleaner forms of energy.

"You need a power source that provides base-load energy," he said, or energy that is available consistently. "With solar and wind, it can be intermittent. If you want to get away from coal, you still need that base load that works when the wind's not blowing and the sun's not shining."

Nuclear power is still safe, Nothern argues, and the Japanese reactors were older than the ones in Idaho, meaning the state is not facing as great a meltdown risk.

"It definitely brings to the fore the need to pursue [nuclear power] safely," he said. "If we're going to make nuclear power an alternative, we need to have current research, current prototypes."

Both Nothern and Hoaglun said the biggest question posed by the situation in Japan wasn't whether to pursue nuclear energy, but how to make it safer. Hoaglun said the small scale of the proposed reactors would make it easier to implement safety systems that would protect against a potential meltdown.


"When you're doing something on a smaller scale, it's easier to build redundant systems," he said, in part because small-scale redundancies become less of a drain on the costs of constructing a reactor.

Nicole Stricker, spokeswoman for the Idaho National Laboratory, said small-scale reactors aren't inherently safer. Still, she said, all forms of energy production come with risks and potential environmental impacts.

"That's something that policy makers need to do, looking at the ethical issues and the facts and weighing the risks and benefits," she said.

Sticker said she had not heard whether the INL would house one of the reactors.

The spokesmen for Risch and Crapo said both are pursuing legislation that would promote other sources of energy. Hoaglun said Risch will be looking at hydropower, and Nothern said Crapo would consider anything that would reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

"We should not lock into one source," he said. "We need to have options out there."

Katherine Wutz:

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