Energy Northwest's proposal to research whether another nuclear reactor should be built in Washington state ignores better and less risky energy alternatives, writes guest columnist Sara Patton, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition.

NOTHING could do more to spotlight the need to draw tomorrow’s power from energy efficiency and new renewable resources than the recent news that Energy Northwest wants to build more nuclear-power plants in Washington.

Energy Northwest — a consortium of 25 publicly owned Washington electric utilities — is asking its members to pay for additional research for a proposed nuclear plant that it says could be under construction in 2014.

The fledgling project ignores the severe financial and radioactive waste-disposal risks still posed by nuclear power. And it disregards extensive documentation of the region’s substantial clean-energy potential.

Don’t misunderstand. The NW Energy Coalition is open to considering new nuclear technologies proven to be safe and economical, and whose waste issues have been adequately addressed. The nuclear industry simply isn’t there yet.

It is truly a wonder that Energy Northwest is advancing such an idea at all, given its failed and infamously expensive record with nuclear-power development. The consortium’s original name, the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS, had to be changed after it became widely known as “WHOOPS” for saddling ratepayers with what in the early 1980s was then the largest municipal bond default in history. Twenty-five years later, we are still paying for the bankruptcy; 30 percent of what Bonneville Power Administration charges public utilities for electricity goes to pay off billions in bad nuclear debt.

To its credit, Energy Northwest recently applied some of its expertise to developing wind, solar, biomass and other clean-energy solutions. The region’s official power-planning agency, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, says those approaches are cheaper and less risky than nuclear power when both costs of construction and power are included.

Yes, we will need more electricity as our regional population grows — enough by 2025 to power five cities the size of Seattle, according to the Power Council. But we don’t need to place another high-risk bet on nuclear power.

Two recent coalition reports show how we can safely and cheaply satisfy future energy needs — which now include electrifying our transportation system and weaning ourselves from dirty coal plants to reduce climate pollution — with job-producing energy efficiency and renewable energy development.

“The Power of Efficiency: Northwest Energy Conservation Potential Through 2020,” a coalition-commissioned study of existing Power Council and utility data, documents how things such as high-efficiency lighting, advanced heating and cooling equipment, better building design and more-efficient appliances can more than meet ordinary electricity-use growth over the next decade. At half the price of power from fossil-fueled plants, efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest energy resource available to the region — and it looks even better through the lens of the nuclear option.

The other study, “Bright Future: How to keep the Northwest’s lights on, jobs growing, goods moving and salmon swimming in the era of climate change,” shows how developing clean renewable resources such as wind energy along with energy efficiency can economically power society, protect nature and meet carbon-reduction targets.

Efficiency and renewable energy make us more secure, insuring against fossil-fuel price spikes and disruptions in supplies from outside the Northwest. They also avoid the risks associated with nuclear power, including accidents, radioactive-waste disposal, terrorism and dependence on places such as Kazakhstan and Russia, which supply a third of the world’s uranium, for nuclear fuel.

And clean energy projects can make us more financially secure, creating local, family-wage jobs in construction, engineering and manufacturing that help lead the transition to a clean and affordable energy future.

Energy Northwest would better serve its public-utility members and their customers by scrapping its nuclear notions and using its leadership to help realize essential energy efficiency and renewable energy goals embodied in I-937 and other established policies.

Sara Patton is executive director of the NW Energy Coalition.