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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Rural Alaska nuclear power gets legislative backing

Galena, Alaska officials' idea to bring nuclear power to the residents of their isolated Yukon River community took a step forward when the state Legislature approved $500,000 as part of the capital budget to study the plan.

City manager Marvin Yoder, in San Diego on Friday for the American Nuclear Society's annual meeting, said the state money will be used to conduct a series of 90-day studies to see if it could work.

"We think there are some real general questions to be answered before this can be considered for Alaska," Yoder said. "We are going to hire the right scientific people to answer these questions."

Among the questions Galena and Toshiba Corp., the corporate backer developing the 10-megawatt plant, will attempt to answer are what would happen to the reactor core after its 30-year life, what the safety issues would be and what would be necessary to guard it, Yoder said.

Critics previously have said they were not sure how nuclear reactors would be affected by the extreme climate of Alaska.

Because of Galena's inaccessibility and the necessity to ship diesel fuel by barge, residents pay from 20 cents to $1 per kilowatt hour, while the national average is less than 9 cents. With nuclear power, residents could pay a third of what they now pay to power their homes, Yoder said.

If it's feasible in Galena, nuclear power could be used to lower energy costs throughout rural Alaska, state lawmakers said.

"Nuclear power is something folks might frown on, but it's self- contained," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez. "It has a lot of potential for areas" that have high fuel costs.

Harris and Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, both supported the studies and pushed to include the $500,000 appropriation in next year's capital budget.

"The amount of money we spend on fuel in rural Alaska is staggering and it gets more and more expensive every year," Stevens said.

Many questions will have to be answered, Stevens said, such as how the plant would be regulated and what its security requirements would be.

Several Democratic lawmakers, when contacted Friday, said they were unfamiliar with the proposal and declined to comment. Galena's representatives, Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, and Rep. Woodie Salmon, D-Beaver, could not be reached Friday.

The capital budget has yet to be transmitted to Gov. Frank Murkowski, but his staff already is reviewing the appropriations in it, said spokeswoman Becky Hultberg. She indicated Murkowski would not be inclined to veto the Galena study.

"Gov. Murkowski believes that affordable energy is critical to ensuring economic development in rural Alaska," she said. "He will be evaluating the Galena appropriation with that in mind."

Yoder and Toshiba representatives are scheduled to hold a panel discussion on the proposal Monday at the American Nuclear Society meeting. He said all the key players will be at the meeting.

By Tuesday, he said, "we'll have a real plan of attack on this."


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