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May 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Contrary to the talking heads of the nuclear
power industry, nuclear power isn't clean, safe or cheap, compared to
the alternatives. Just ask Washington state residents now saying
goodbye to one huge loser of a power plant that has haunted them for
thirty years.]

By Blaine Harden

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

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

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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