Hawaii – Is Nuclear Power an Option?

Picture of a nuclear power plant

By: T. Jeffersonian

Nuclear power was amongst the options studied by Hawaiian Electric when it began
planning new power plants in the 1950’s. The valley site for the Kahe Power Plant was
specifically selected with the thought that the surrounding mountain ridges would help shield the rest of Oahu from radiation in the unlikely event of a release. Between the years 1958 and 1969, Hawaiian Electric conducted four studies on whether nuclear power could work on Oahu. Each study concluded essentially with similar results: “Use of nuclear power cannot be justified at the present time inasmuch as the smallest reactors presently available are too large to be integrated into our system”.

Besides the cumbersome size of older reactors, there are several reasons why Hawaii
does not have nuclear power as part of its energy mix, including the fact that the state’s constitution forbids it. Section 8 of Article XI states “no nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the state without the prior approval by a two thirds vote in each house of the Legislature”. The cost of building, operating, and insurance alone for a nuclear power plant are astronomically prohibitive for Hawaii. We are already having massive budget and completion issues with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

Imagine the issues that we would have paying for, completing, and operating a
nuclear generating station. A report by the Friends of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority also said that, besides legislation and costs, other reasons why nuclear power may be difficult in Hawaii include the small size of the Islands, the geographic isolation of the state, and waste disposal issues.

A growing number of scientists and other credible advocates are making the case that
nuclear energy is an intelligent option because evidence is mounting that current global measures are falling woefully short on climate change. Despite the nuclear renaissance intended to fight climate change and new generation technology based small nuclear plants, Hawaiian Electric cannot envision nuclear plants fitting into Hawaii’s energy picture given the renewable resources we now have available.

Laying aside the considerable environmental, political and financial
obstacles, Hawaiian Electric feels that flexible-fuel generators that can automatically ramp up and down work better with the ebb and flow of variable renewables like wind and solar. Interest in nuclear power plants being built in Hawaii has again been ramping up recently. Hawaii was the first state with an upgraded renewable energy goal of achieving 100% clean energy by 2045. Nuclear power would enable Hawaii to achieve that 2045 goal. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic quarantine and travel restrictions have clearly highlighted Hawaii’s isolation and our dependency on imports including the fossil fuels required to make 62% of our electricity.

The state’s isolation, import dependency, and urgent climate change response once again have Hawaiian policy makers and political leaders thinking about nuclear power as an option for Hawaii.

Will Hawaii have nuclear power in its future? No, because the island is too small and the costs are too high to build, operate, and provide insurance for it. Additionally, there is still a substantial fear of nuclear power accidents. When nuclear power is mentioned, everyone instantly visualizes Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.

Japan, like Hawaii, is a series of volcanic islands equally subject to earthquakes,
tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Global public confidence in the safety of nuclear power was greatly damaged by the Fukushima disaster. Following Fukushima, Japan vowed to close all its nuclear power plants; however, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, re-elected on a platform of restarting nuclear power, planned to again have nuclear power account for 20-22% of the country’s total electricity supply by 2030. Japan currently remains on trajectory to achieve this nuclear energy target. Japan’s fear of nuclear accidents is still high but that fear is very
gradually subsiding.

Despite the Hawaii state constitution prohibitions against building nuclear power plants in Hawaii, there is nuclear power present in Hawaii almost every day. Aside from civilian x-ray machines, U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers porting at Pearl Harbor operate on nuclear power. The U.S. Navy has operated nuclear reactors since 1953. Since 1953, the U.S. Navy has accumulated over 6,200 reactor-years of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers, without a single radiological incident.

At least 35 colleges and universities in the United States operate on-campus nuclear reactors as part of their nuclear engineering curriculums. At one time, another vastly isolated area used nuclear power for ten years to supply its electrical energy requirements. That remote location is McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Nuclear power operates in Hawaii every day, other islands continue to operate nuclear power, and remote areas have operated reactors to supply power in the past.

Should Hawaii use nuclear power for energy in order to achieve its 2045 renewable
energy targets and beyond? Yes, it should. Hawaii should explore safe, affordable, privatized
nuclear power that has the built-in versatility enabling the reactors to be swapped from fission to fusion once technology advancements allow. Given that much of our state is underwater, after all we are the Union’s widest east-to-west state, Hawaii should primarily look at building underwater nuclear reactors such as those on the submarines already present and operating here in Hawaii every day.