From nuclear fuel to nature trails

Oregon wants to turn an ex-nuclear power plant into a state park

  • Diane Sylvain
 

RAINIER, Ore. - Rich Lamon and his three friends are the only ones fishing the wetlands of this quiet recreation area. Just out of sight beyond the trees, the Columbia River is jammed with boats, but Lamon, who drove 42 miles from suburban Portland for the day, says he doubts many people will join him at this spot. He nods up at the looming curve of a 500-foot-tall tower that once cooled hot water used to produce electricity. The tower doesn't bother him, he says, "but that is probably the big thing keeping people away." The huge structure is a monument to Oregon's Trojan nuclear power plant (HCN, 6/14/93: Oregon's Trojan horse: Fatally flawed nuclear power plant is shut). Trojan stopped generating electricity in 1992 after 17 years of operation, the victim of cheap hydropower, energy deregulation and bitter anti-nuclear protests. Now, owner Portland General Electric and the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation are negotiating to convert most of the site into a state park.

According to documents prepared by both parties, the company would give the state 500 acres, including the recreation area where Lamon was fishing. Oregon would gain its first new state park in decades, and take on the expenses of operating and developing the property. Portland General Electric would keep its power plant and 134 surrounding industrialized acres in which to store radioactive waste - all spent fuel from the Trojan reactor.

The deal could set a precedent. With the demand for outdoor recreation and the difficulty of redeveloping nuclear sites, converting the grounds of defunct nuclear power plants into parks is a good idea, some Westerners say. Still, the deal wouldn't be cost-free for taxpayers. The electric company wants roughly $3 million in federal funds to remove the cooling tower, for while it never contained nuclear materials, it remains a reminder of Trojan's unfortunate history. Oregon also wants approximately $3 million in federal money to add a campground, a conference center and a boat ramp to the Columbia River.

Any danger here?

Though the spent fuel emits dangerous gamma rays, Trojan's federal regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says Trojan's recreation area already meets safety and cleanup standards and any future park would be safe from contamination. According to commission spokesman Breck Henderson, the fuel will sit inside massive radiation-absorbing metal and concrete casks, on a parking lot surrounded by fences, cameras and radiation sensors until at least 2010, when a much-delayed national nuclear waste dump is expected to open at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

"We can't imagine anything that would happen (at Trojan) to create a significant risk to the public," says Henderson.

That's good news for Tony Hyde, a Columbia County commissioner who is a key supporter of the deal. "It's a no-brainer," for a county struggling in the face of Trojan's shutdown and dwindling timber-related income, says Hyde. County businesses would receive revenue from the park's projected 240,000 visitors and campers each year, while the state would be responsible for the cost of its development and operation.

Hyde says he thinks his county can cash in on Trojan's strategic location near booming metro Portland, where residents seem to have an insatiable demand for convenient recreation. He pictures more Portland metro residents like Lamon driving down on Friday night for a weekend of fishing, boating and wildlife-watching.

"They're after a park that they can get to in a short time frame, so they can actually use it over the weekend," he says. Currently, no such state parks exist between Portland and the Pacific coast.

Surprisingly, given Trojan's controversial history, there appears to be little opposition to the plan. David Lochbaum, a safety engineer for the national nuclear watchdog group, Union of Concerned Scientists, says he isn't worried about park safety because it is much easier to manage a spent-fuel facility than an operating nuclear plant.

"You have much more time, and therefore many more options, to take action to prevent a worst-case scenario," he says.

Longtime anti-Trojan activist Lloyd Marbet is leery of the deal but doesn't object to a park. The site functions as a park already, he says. "The issue here is the company turning the park over to the state; the devil's in the details." Marbet worries the Trojan land deal might turn into a Trojan horse, leaving Oregon responsible for dealing with pollution problems that might only be discovered down the road. "When you transfer ownership, does the state assume liability?" he asks.

Marbet will have to wait to find out; until the state and Portland General Electric secure federal funds, plan details aren't likely to be available to the public.

Sequels ahead

The conversion of the Trojan site may be less a controversy than a harbinger. Gradually, the nearly 100 commercial nuclear power plants around the country will shut down and large chunks of their land will become available. According to scientist Lochbaum, the usual redevelopment idea for old nuclear plants has been to re-engineer them for conventional electricity production. But using their land as open space might be easier.

"All these plants, with the exception of one in Arizona, are next to some large body of water, which makes them attractive," says Lochbaum. Moreover, "there's always somebody who doesn't want a power plant in their backyard, nuclear or not. Usually a park or a recreational facility gets the least opposition."

Several other defunct plants seem to be on the same path as Trojan. Maine's Yankee plant, currently undergoing decommissioning, has announced it will give away 200 acres for environmental purposes. In northern Michigan, the Big Rock Point plant's 600 acres on Lake Superior may be converted into a nature preserve or resort community. In Oregon, County Commissioner Hyde says he wants to conquer the nuclear stigma at Trojan and set an example for the world. "Let's not turn it into a black hole," says Hyde. "Let's turn it into something we can all use."


Martin John Brown is a senior editor at The Bear Deluxe magazine in Portland, Oregon.

You can contact ...

  • Portland General Electric, 503/464-8000, www.portlandgeneral.com;
  • Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org/energy.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Martin John Brown

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