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In the Northwest, Nuclear Power Takes a Hit

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

KALAMA, Wash., May 21 -- It was ironic -- for an explosion.

Just as nuclear power begins to emerge as a possible savior from global warming -- the co-founder of Greenpeace said last month it might avert catastrophic climate change, a New York Times editorial said last week that it deserves a "fresh look" -- the cooling tower from what had once been the nation's largest nuclear plant is blown to smithereens.

The explosion occurred near here on Sunday morning. After a carefully controlled kaboom, the 499-foot cooling tower of the Trojan Nuclear Plant tilted gently to the east and melted in a cloud of whitish-gray dust that drifted upstream with the wind along the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

For most of the past three decades, the concrete cooling tower -- a spookily gigantic industrial apparition visible for miles above the evergreens along Interstate 5, the busiest highway in the Pacific Northwest -- has loomed in the region's imagination as a symbol of all that was sneaky, leaky and insanely expensive about nuclear power.

The softening of political opposition to the nuclear industry that seems to be occurring elsewhere in the United States, with tentative plans by utilities in the Midwest and Southeast to build new plants, is not yet changing hearts and minds in Oregon or Washington.

For that, the Trojan plant, which began making electricity in 1976 and was shut down in 1993, has much to answer for. Besides chronic technical, safety and reliability problems, it cost local utility customers more than $400 million to build and is costing them $409 million to decommission.

The Trojan plant came online in an era when Northwest politicians and corporate leaders were besotted by the promise of clean nuclear power. In a spectacularly ill-conceived scheme, work began on five other nuclear power plants as part of a consortium of utilities called the Washington Public Power Supply System, which quickly became infamous as Whoops.

Whoops indeed. Construction of the five plants -- only one of which ever produced electricity, none of which was then needed -- led to what, at the time, was the country's largest municipal bond default. Consumers across the Northwest are still paying for Whoops in their monthly electricity bills -- a catastrophe that in one five-year stretch pushed up electricity rates by about 600 percent. Washington and Oregon have since passed laws that restrict the construction of nuclear power plants.

If all that were not enough, the Trojan plant was also widely reported and popularly believed to have been the real-world inspiration for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, the laughably mismanaged, wildly dangerous workplace of television's Homer Simpson. Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," grew up in nearby Portland, Ore., during troubled times at Trojan.

That rumor, though, turns out not to be true. "There is no connection between the Trojan Power Plant and the one in 'The Simpsons,' " according to Groening's handlers.

In any case, it took just a few seconds for the towering symbol of bad nuclear times gone by to disappear in dust. The "Trojan Implosion," as it was billed, was the handiwork of Controlled Demolition Inc., a Baltimore company that blows up lots of large concrete things, most notably sports stadiums such as the Kingdome in Seattle and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

Mark Loizeaux, who owns the demolition company and joined reporters to watch the blast from the Washington side of the Columbia, cheerily rated the tower's implosion as "a textbook job." He noted that a rather large bit of concrete from the tower was still standing -- about 45-feet high in one spot -- but said that he had expected as much. A 20,000-pound wrecking ball, he said, would soon clean up the mess.

About a minute after the tower fell in on itself, Loizeaux barked into a radio, telling police that they could unblock traffic on I-5 and the Coast Guard that it could unblock shipping on the Columbia.

The plant owner, Portland General Electric, was also pleased. Tower demolition was a major step in the utility's long, costly and embarrassing effort to extricate itself from a plant whose problems ranged from chronic steam leaks to an exceedingly unfortunate location -- on a major earthquake fault, sitting on the southern bank of the West's largest river and just upwind from Portland, the second-largest city in the Northwest.

With ratepayers footing the bill, PGE has been taking Trojan apart for more than a decade. The plant's nuclear reactor and nearly all of its radioactive machinery have been barged upstream on the Columbia for burial at the federal Hanford nuclear reservation. Highly radioactive fuel rods remain in storage at the site, waiting for the federal government to decide where they can be safely buried.

Scott Simms, a PGE spokesman who watched the implosion, was eager on Sunday to talk about how his company has shifted its focus to wind power and high-efficiency, gas-driven turbines.

Asked about the irony of knocking down a nuclear plant when other utilities are planning similar plants, Simms noted that Trojan was "outmoded compared to anything that might be built today." He did not mention irony.

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