Last month, two seemingly unrelated events took place at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington that could influence the future of nuclear energy. Officers of the Puget Power & Light Company of Seattle announced it is planning to move two proposed nuclear power plants from coastal Washington State to Hanford.
Only a few miles from the proposed site, scientists turned on electrical heaters deep underground in a critical experiment to determine if the volcanic rock below Hanford is a safe place to permanently store nuclear wastes.
Both events suggest that Hanford may become a prototype of a future nuclear "energy park," which some experts feel is the only means of preserving nuclear energy in a post-Three Mile island world.
The idea is to concentrate nuclear power plants in remote parts of the country so that if an accident did occur, relatively few people would suffer from exposure to radiaton.
Some take the idea even further, saying that such parks could take care of almost all nuclear-related activities, including waste disposal, so that the fuel, once mined, never has to leave the park.
One of the idea's boosters, Dr. Alvin Weinberg of the Institute of Energy Analysis, Oak Ridge, Tenn., argues that such clustering would attract a "cadre" of skilled engineers, enhancing the safety of the plants.
However, critics, such as Ralph Nader's Critical Mass group, claim that the chances of a major catastrophe happening increase as 1,000-megawatt plants accumulate on a single site.
The concept of grouping large numbers of reactors on a single site is appealing to the nuclear industry for both economic and political reasons.
Puget Power decided to move its proposed power plants to Hanford after a lengthy battle to win permission to build them in Washington State's Skagit Valley. Last November, area voters rejected the plants in a referendum by a better than 2-to- 1 margin.
By contrast community leaders near Hanford long have favored a nuclear park at Hanford and have actively tried to entice plants there.
The Hanford Reservation is a 570-square mile trace of sagebrush land in eastern Washington acquired by the federal government 36 years ago for the Manhattan Project.
In addition to a government-owned reactor, the Washington Public Power Supply System currently is building three power reactors at Hanford.
The addition of the two proposed PP&L power plants would bring the total Hanford generating capacity to more than 7,000 megawatts when completed.
One recent study by the US Department of Energy suggests that Hanford, which is half the size of Rhode Island, could support some 20 1,000-megawatt plants.
A study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory two years ago identified about a dozen nuclear power sites throughout the United States that could be expanded into regional energy parks, many of them in the area served by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But it is hard to think of any location besides Hanford where the idea could be pushed to its ultimate. For example, there is nowhere else in the cuntry where both new power generation and nuclear waste disposal are being considered at the same location.