Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 9:54 PM on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear power possibility for Alaska? Energy expert says questions remain



By Pat Forgey
Morris News Service - Alaska

JUNEAU — A nuclear disaster in Japan may have some in Alaska rethinking the state's own extremely tentative plans to bring the industry to Alaska.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, last year successfully pushed for inclusion of nuclear power in the state's energy plan.

"I spend a lot of my time lately considering whether small scale nuclear is a viable option for Alaska," Gwen Holdmann, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Center for Energy and Power, told the Legislature last month.

Johnson was unavailable for comment earlier this week.

Holdmann said this week what was being considered for Alaska was much different than the large scale nuclear plants that appear to be facing a partial meltdown in Japan following last week's huge earthquake.

The center did not advocate any nuclear power options for Alaska, she said, but instead provided impartial information for decision makers.

Holdmann has been watching the ongoing Japanese events closely, while responding to questions in Alaska, she said.

"To put it in a very short nutshell, the situation that's happening in Japan is similar to what happened at Three Mile Island, but not as serious as Chernobyl," she said.

In 1979 the Three Mile Island power plant suffered a partial meltdown; in 1986 the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union suffered the world's worst nuclear disaster.

What's being considered in Alaska, she said, wasn't the dangerous old design.

"We would never consider installing a reactor that's modeled after that design," she said.

What's under consideration in Alaska is a small, innovative modular design, she said.

At this point, she said, the research is still about 10 years away from being able to install such a plant. They've been designed, but never built, and Holdmann said she expected Alaskans would want to see one in operation elsewhere before considering it for here.

Rep. Pete Peterson, D-Anchorage, has been following the issue but said Alaskans may never actually be faced with such a decision because it doesn't make economic sense.

"I just don't think we've got the customer base to make it cost effective," he said. "I'd much rather see us go in the renewable direction at this point."

The city of Galena has shown interest in one of the small-scale reactors to cope with its high energy costs, and last session a Johnson aide said Alaskans viewed nuclear power favorably.

A Dittman Research survey in 2009 showed Alaskans favored nuclear over oil, coal or tidal power, Jeanne Ostend told the House Energy Committee.

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