Wolf Creek at 30: Environmental attitudes toward nuclear power changing

? A quiet celebration took place Thursday near Burlington, where the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant celebrated its 30th anniversary.

The plant, which is jointly owned by Westar Energy, Kansas City Power and Light and the Kansas Electric Power Cooperative, officially began commercial operation on Sept. 3, 1985.

At the time, a mere six years after a major accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, Wolf Creek was a lightning rod for protests by Kansas environmental groups, and heated debates over the safety and costs of nuclear energy.

This Jan. 11, 2000, file photo shows the Wolf Creek Nuclear power plant near New Strawn, Kan., which went online in 1985. (AP Photo/Capital Journal, David Eulitt, File)

But today, in the face of new information about the link between carbon emissions and global climate change, some environmental groups have begun to soften their attitudes toward nuclear power.

Zach Pistora, lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club, said his group still opposes nuclear energy as a long-term solution for the nation’s power needs, and believes the U.S. can eventually meet all of its needs with renewable sources such as wind and solar energy.

But he said he recognizes that it’s now a divisive issue within the environmental movement because of the more immediate concerns about climate change.

“I know for a lot of folks nuclear is a dividing issue because of carbon,” Pistora said. “We’ve got to make some pretty large moves on the carbon issue.”

Pistora, who is 27, was born three years after Wolf Creek went on line and thus has no memory of the controversy that once swirled around the plant’s construction.

But at that time in 1985, the expansion of nuclear power was among the most controversial issues in the country.

Two years earlier, ABC Motion Pictures released “Silkwood,” a movie based on the true story about the suspicious death of a whistleblower and union activist who worked at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma. It was nominated for five Oscars.

Partly as a result of public concerns, very few nuclear plants have been built since Wolf Creek. The most recent was the Watts Bar 1 plant in Tennessee, which opened in 1996.

But Jeffrey Geuther, who teaches nuclear engineering at Kansas State University, and manages the nuclear reactor on the K-State campus, said all that is about to change very soon, starting with a second unit at Watts Bar.

“My understanding is that Watts Bar 2 is going to go critical late this year or early next year,” Geuther said. He also noted that at least four other plants are expected to be built in Georgia and South Carolina.

“I think for the environmental-minded folks, carbon dioxide emission is the big issue, and nuclear power is the quickest way to solve that problem., considering nuclear power plants produce so much more electricity at a baseload level than you would get out of wind power or solar power.”

Wolf Creek was initially licensed to operate for 40 years. But officials at the plant said it has received a 20-year extension, meaning it has at least another 30 years of operating life ahead of it.

Today, the plant’s output is rated at 1,250 megawatts, making it a significant portion of the total electricity production of the three companies that own it. Westar and KCP&L serve nearly all customers in eastern Kansas and the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Currently, there are no plans to build another nuclear power plant in Kansas. Guether said that’s because there isn’t enough demand in Kansas currently to justify another 1-gigawatt power plant

But he said it’s possible that could change, given the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, which utility officials say could force them to retire some of their aging coal-fired power plants.

“As a replacement for coal, I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t install another nuclear plant in Kansas,” Geuther said.

Larry Erickson, president of the Kansas Natural Resource Council, a group that opposed building Wolf Creek in the 1980s, said attitudes toward nuclear power have shifted. But he said there are still plenty of concerns about it.

“Finding good places for nuclear waste continues to be an issue because it is around for a very long time,” he said. “There is more support for wind and solar energy than nuclear energy.

“I rank nuclear energy above coal because of all of the environmental issues related to coal,” Erickson said.