Willamette Week, March 9, 2005
This is an excerpt from 30 Years of Willamette Week
By Paul Koberstein
Of all the looming environmental disasters that have confronted this region in the past 30 years-the felling of old-growth forests, salmon extinction, the rape of the Willamette River-none can match the sheer catastrophic potential of the Trojan Nuclear Facility, whose atomic heart began to glow in 1975.
We never knew how lucky we were. No one knew that a vital backup safety system at the plant, located 40 miles north of the city, was not in working order. No one knew that in the event of overheating within the reactor core, the Emergency Core Cooling System could not reliably have been called upon to prevent meltdown.
In fact, the problem was not discovered until 1991, when the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined Trojan operator Portland General Electric $280,000 for the breach.
"We were one broken pipe away from Chernobyl," says Portland lawyer Greg Kafoury, who was an anti-Trojan activist for many years.
Trojan's problems began before the plant even began operating. In 1972, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Geological Survey had found a "concealed fault" running through the Columbia River next to the plant site. In the article, John Gofman, an Atomic Energy Commission scientist, compared Trojan to "locating 2,500 atomic bombs worth of radiation in Portland's back yard."
Even as Trojan went on line, WW was already pricking holes in it, criticizing the cost for a visitors center-a whopping $2.2 million. WW was wondering why PGE should be spending all that money ($6 from every ratepayer) to propagandize about nuclear power, given the emerging safety and waste problems at Trojan. PGE's response, in a call from spokesman Steve Loy to WW editor Ronald Buel: "Why don't you guys get off our back?"
By 1977 Trojan officials were not so imperious. Their plant had in fact been seriously compromised during construction. The earthquake risk was far greater than anyone had imagined: Walls in the containment building were missing crucial reinforcing rods and didn't comply with the Uniform Building Code. PGE sued the contractor, Bechtel, and shut down Trojan several months for rebuilding. "Considering the magnitude of the earthquake loads and the importance of the structure, it was the grossest kind of error," according to a 1981 review by consulting engineers Preece/Goudie of San Francisco.
When the extent of the errors was first discovered, Bechtel tried an engineering patch that actually weakened the building. Court records show this decision stemmed from pressure from PGE management to avoid construction delays and cost overruns.
In court testimony, PGE head Robert Short testified that "the Bechtel people described the problem as very severe. The direct quote was, 'This is the worst mistake we have ever seen in a construction project of this size.'"
PGE's lawsuit against Bechtel was settled out of court, and the full docket of briefs, depositions and engineering reports was sealed by a federal judge. The details would probably still be secret if someone hadn't leaked the documents to Kafoury in 1986.
While PGE was playing its high-stakes game of chance, scientists were taking a closer look at the potential risk. In 1987, U.S. Geological Survey researchers reported in Science magazine that a major quake on the order of 8 or 9 on the Richter scale would hit the Northwest-not a question of if, they said, but when.
Activist Lloyd Marbet devoted decades to killing Trojan. He put three initiatives on the ballot-in 1986, 1990 and 1992-only to be beaten each time by PGE's millions. Through legal and ballot maneuvers in the late '70s and early '80s, Marbet did manage to stop two proposed PGE nukes known as Pebble Springs. When PGE then tried to charge Oregon ratepayers for the hundreds of millions of dollars it lost on Pebble Springs, Portland lawyers Dan Meek and Linda Williams sued and won. They were awarded nearly $2 million in legal fees, paying to help get anti-Trojan initiatives on the ballot.
In 1992, PGE announced that the steam generators at Trojan were crumbling and would be replaced. The generators, which turn heat into electricity, had been built by Westinghouse and contained defects seen at other plants. Two last measures to close Trojan failed that year on the November ballot.
A week after Election Day, Trojan's tubes burst with a major leak, and the plant was shut down. Robert Pollard of the Union of Concerned Scientists released a Nuclear Regulatory Commission memo showing dissent within the agency regarding Trojan's safety. Pollard said the plant had "a high likelihood of an accident occurring with severe consequences to the public." While The Oregonian ran an editorial calling for immediate restart, opposition to restarting Trojan was growing within the NRC.
PGE finally shuttered Trojan in early 1993, but its legacy didn't end there. PGE tried to get ratepayers to pay it $550 million for its investment and profits it would have made if it had kept the plant running until 2011. When a court ruled the charge illegal, PGE went to the Legislature and pushed through a bill overriding the court's decision. Activists then forced a public referendum on the payment, and a whopping 88 percent of voters told PGE to dream on. PGE then sought a settlement with the Oregon Public Utility Commission for a mere $300 million. The issue is still tied up in litigation, although activists won the last round, with a Salem judge in 2003 comparing PGE's argument to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass.
Trojan's undead reactor core was barged up the Columbia River in 1999 to its final resting place at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near Richland, Wash. Meanwhile, part of the site has been turned into a park, which features a 25-acre lake (no motorboats-wouldn't want any pollution, now, would we?). Today, the spot is known as Trojan Park, but we'd like to propose a name that summarizes its legacy of safety lapses and boneheaded engineering: Homer Simpson Park.