Why Did Portland General Electric Want to Build Trojan Nuclear Plant in the First Place?

The mighty atom had just won WWII and was enjoying George W. Bush-right-after-9/11 levels of popularity, while the invention of hippies was still decades away.

I recall protesting against the now-defunct Trojan nuclear plant in the 1980s. One question I don’t recall anyone asking back then, however: Why did they want to build Trojan in the first place, given that our region already had (and still has) more hydropower than we can use? —Duke Nukem

I share your historical curiosity, Duke—there’s just something about this time of year that makes one want to muse about topics from Portland’s colorful past that can be researched without having to get anybody to return a call during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

I doubt that anyone under 50 reads this column (which not only doesn’t come as video, but presumes your mastery of this tedious system of archaic glyphs in which it’s encoded), but just in case someone missed it: Portland General Electric—PGE to its friends—began construction of Trojan Nuclear Power Plant near Rainier, Oregon, in 1970 (which, perhaps fittingly, is the same year the Ford Pinto was introduced). The plant came online in 1975 and was slated to operate until 2011. However, it was plagued from the start with equipment failures and bad press, and was finally shuttered for good in 1992.

Why would PGE take on such a fraught endeavor? Well, for starters, they’d first begun exploring the possibility of building a nuclear plant way back in the late 1940s. The mighty atom had just won WWII and was enjoying George W. Bush-right-after-9/11 levels of popularity, while the invention of hippies was still decades away. Nuclear power’s downsides would become more apparent in the years to follow, but they don’t appear to have penetrated PGE’s C-suite in any significant way prior to the 1967 decision to build the plant.

But back to your question: Given that Northwest hydropower is abundant enough to make Oregon’s electricity market the nation’s third cheapest, why build a plant at all? Here’s the thing: All that juicy hydropower is controlled by the Bonneville Power Administration, a public entity. PGE, the private utility, has to buy it from them wholesale and then retail it to us. If, as seemed possible at the time, BPA had decided to cut PGE off in favor of public utilities—perhaps when PGE’s 20-year contract with BPA came up for renewal in 1973—PGE could have been in a world of hurt.

Trojan represented a hedge against such a possibility, as well as an opportunity to grow PGE as a company. Toss in a few million bucks’ worth of federal “Atoms for Peace” emoluments to the industry and, congratulations, you’ve got yourself a nuclear plant. Have fun! (Just be careful not to run into it from behind, especially with a lit cigarette.)

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.