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Nuclear Idaho

Environmental summit brings national issue home

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Idaho is not immune to the challenges posed by the need to find new energy sources in a changing world.

As people search for cheap and efficient means to meet growing energy needs, attention has been returning to nuclear energy—a plentiful resource, but one that raises some major concerns for anyone living near a plant.

With the announcement last year that Alternate Energy Holdings Inc. plans to build what would be Idaho's first commercial nuclear reactor near Bruneau, the concerns have become much more real. In April, AEHI announced it had signed an agreement to purchase 4,000 acres of land near the C.J. Strike Reservoir and Recreation Area from James Hilliard. In June, the company said it had secured $3.5 billion for the project, being called the Idaho Energy Complex.

According to the group's Web site, the reactor will feature a dry design, meaning that it will require only thousands of gallons of water for cooling, rather than the millions of gallons other reactors use. "Furthermore, IEC will use the plant's excess heat from nuclear generation to produce biofuels like ethanol, thereby further reducing cooling requirements and giving local farmers a market for their crops and agricultural waste," the Web site reads.

AEHI has begun the three-year approval process through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and hopes the plant could begin generating power by late 2015.

The issue will be one of the focuses of the Idaho Environmental Summit, Dec. 11 to 13 in Boise. More than 300 people from 135 organizations and 40 cities attended the event last year, and organizers anticipate a packed house this year as well.

Lisa Audin, a volunteer coordinator, is quick to stress that the mission of the summit is one of harmony and inclusiveness.

"We're trying to move discussions forward rather than be political or divisive," she said. "We're trying to be educational and information-sharing and focus on building relationships and understanding diverse perspectives so that we can try to solve some of our challenges."

For nuclear engineer Arjun Makhijani, the issue is one that needs to be examined carefully.

Makhijani, president and senior engineer of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md., will be a summit panelist on Dec. 13. As part of his presentation, Makhijani plans to discuss his new book, Carbon Free and Nuclear Free, a Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. The book, published this fall, was a joint project between the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and Makhijani's organization.

"I set out to do a technical and economic feasibility study of whether it was possible to phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power at the same time," Makhijani said in an interview with BW. What he discovered surprised him.

"Not only do I think it can be done, I think it can be done at reasonable cost and done fairly rapidly for such a massive change," he said. "In 30 to 50 years, I think we can completely transform our energy economy."

Makhijani advocates using intensive coordination at the regional level and a distributed energy grid that would allow a steady and reliable energy supply from a combination of renewable sources such as hydro, wind, geothermal and solar. A diversified energy source pool such as this, combined with energy-efficient technologies and building design would, as Makhijani puts it, "increase our renewable energy supply 20 to 30 times without sacrificing any reliability at all."

It will be difficult, he readily admits, but believes it would be better than developing nuclear energy, which he sees now as a potentially harmful technology.

When Makhijani was a doctoral student in the '70s and working to engineer nuclear power plants, he said he was neither pro-, nor anti-nuclear. "I just did my job," he said.

Later, a professor's lecture about some of the consequences of the carbon-free technology weapons proliferation, waste storage and severe accident risks changed his mind. "I became convinced that we can have a better energy system," he said.

In Idaho, that could mean further developing wind, solar and geothermal potential. Wind is currently the fastest-growing source of electricity in the United States. Currently, the United States produces between 11,000 and 13,000 megawatts of wind power, or enough electricity to feed 3 million homes.

Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls studies these and other forms of renewable energy. Robert Neilson, manager of the Renewable Energy Department at the lab, said he sees more and more application of renewables across the state.

Neilson said the non-nuclear energy division of INL was working primarily on biofuels, geothermal, hydropower and wind. "Renewables are part of the way of the future," he said. "Whether you believe in climate change because of carbon dioxide, or whether you believe that oil is going to run out, or you believe that CO2 emissions are an issue. And to the extent that they make sense, we should be looking at employing them."

"The laboratory has for quite some time been doing a lot of great research and development for renewable energy resources in Idaho," said Ken Miller, director of clean energy for the Snake River Alliance, Idaho's nuclear watchdog. "Clearly, the lab has taken a great interest in terms of renewable energy and also low-impact hydropower development and other resources," he said.

Miller is working with the IES to coordinate the summit's six energy panels focusing on wind energy, geothermal production, self-power generation, the state's power transmission projects, the Climate Initiative for Idaho cities and nuclear power.

"Given recent events, probably the nuclear issues track will be fairly heavily attended," Miller said. "Clearly, [nuclear energy] is one of the topics that Idahoans are very interested in." Miller said he hopes that the dialogue will be constructive despite the topic's polarizing nature and said he will not take a role in the nuclear discussion due to his involvement with the Snake River Alliance.

"We're trying to avoid a polarized discussion," Miller said.

The summit is open to the public, but attendees must register at the door or online.

A three-day pass, including lunches and a networking kit costs $225. The day rate is $115, which in,cludes a ticket to Tuesday evening's keynote presentation by Richard Louv, author of the bestselling book Last Child in the Woods. Limited free seating for the keynote speech is also available on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information and to register, visit IdahoSummit.org.