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More nuclear power good for Tri-Cities, expert says

 | Published on 7/29/2011

KENNEWICK -- Demonstrating and producing small modular nuclear power reactors or producing and distributing radioisotopes makes sense for the Tri-City area as Hanford employment declines, said Mike Lawrence, who spoke Thursday at the Columbia Basin Badger Club in Kennewick.

Lawrence has a long leadership history in the Tri-Cities, at Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, and after recently retiring as managing director of the United Kingdom National Nuclear Laboratory, is working with the Tri-City Development Council on a committee promoting clean energy projects.

New modular reactors cost less than traditional reactors and are better able to match power needs.

However, a number of places are interested in becoming demonstration sites, he said.

Although the Northwest doesn't need the power, it does have the advantage of being home to two of the companies -- NuScale and Terrapower -- developing the modular reactors, he said.

The Tri-City area already has two isotope product companies -- IsoRay and Advanced Medical Isotope Corp. -- and PNNL, which has developed isotope technologies.

Now the isotope industry around the world is fragmented, companies are isolated and they do not meet the need for isotopes for medical and other uses.

Developing the industry in the short term would require government support. But the Tri-Cities has a wealth of knowledge and capabilities in the industry, needed infrastructure and a community that appreciates the value of isotopes, Lawrence said.

Much of his talk focused on the future of nuclear power, and he said the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has not appeared to significantly change support for nuclear power in the United States.

"But the perception of nuclear power is lousy," he said.

He views nuclear power production as similar to airline travel. Both are low probability but high consequence events.

When problems happen, there is no need to abandon the technology, but to learn from the event, he said.

People fear nuclear because radiation can't be detected with human senses, but technology has the capability to detect it down to a single radioactive atom, he said. Although radiation is lethal in high doses, it also can be used to treat and cure cancer.

In Fukushima, no evidence has yet been released that the earthquakes caused reactor damage. All the reactors there safely shut down. The problem, which was preventable, was caused by the tsunami with waves higher than the plant was designed to withstand, resulting in the failure of the backup power system, he said.

Lawrence said there is a need for nuclear power, at least until the world comes up with better clean energy systems.

"Once you have built and paid for a reactor, it is the cheapest electricity you can find," he said.

It's a way to limit carbon dioxide releases that he believes are causing climate change and to reduce dependence on unreliable oil supplies. Additional energy production also is needed, or more than half the world's population will continue to have little or no access to electricity, which is directly tied to living standards, he said.

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