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Groups seek closure of NW's only nuke plant

RICHLAND, Wash. — Two Seattle-based groups are calling for the closure of the Northwest's only commercial nuclear power plant.

Heart of America Northwest and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility on Wednesday said the Columbia Generating Station should be closed because of worries about the storage pool that cools used nuclear fuel.

A new report commissioned by the groups also questioned worker protection at the plant, which is on leased land at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The Tri-City Herald reported the plant employs about 850 people and generates about 4 percent of the electricity in the Northwest through the Bonneville Power Administration.

The report was written by Robert Alvarez, a frequent critic of nuclear power and a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The report is "64 pages of details about a plant that the author knows very little about," said Mike Paoli, spokesman for Energy Northwest, which operates the plant.

The report concluded that safely storing used nuclear fuel at the plant site is a major public safety priority. Used fuel is stored within the reactor until it is cooled enough to remove to storage outside the building.

"The most dangerous wastes are located in the elevated spent fuel pool, perched five stories above the ground next to the reactor," Alvarez said in a statement.

If the pool were to lose water during a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake, the fuel could catch fire and the fallout could spread radioactive material over a wide area, according to the report.

Energy Northwest countered that such a fire in a steel-lined concrete structure is so unlikely that it's not included in the potential disasters the company plans for at the reactor.

The report also criticized worker safety, saying that from 1999 to 2011, the Energy Northwest plant was responsible for nearly half the radiation exposure of all workers on the Department of Energy's Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Paoli said the Energy Northwest nuclear plant has not exceeded federal limits for worker exposure annually for at least 17 years, the period when records were immediately accessible.