Whoops is a word with a negative connotation. It is also a word commonly associated, for better or worse, with Northwest Energy. It is an association they been trying to shake since the 1980s. They even went as far as to pay $260,000 in a 1998 lawsuit to avoid being associated with the stigma of Whoops.
It all began in late 1950’s, when the coalition of utilities now known as Northwest Energy originally came together under the name Washington Public Power Supply (WPPSS, pronounced whoops). During the seventies they developed an ambitious plan to build 5 nuclear power plants, funded by municipal bonds. For a decade the project was plagued with delays, surprise expenses and plan revisions. WPPSS had to contend with inflation, high interest rates, constantly changing safety requirements, shifting public opinion and a management team that had no experience in building nuclear power plants.
By the early eighties the estimated cost of completing the project had jumped from $4.1 billion to $23.8 billion. The WPPSS managers decided that completing the project was too expensive to be feasible and chose to default on the $2.25 billion in borrowed money they had already spent. This became the largest municipal bonds default in U.S history, and it created a decades worth of law suits from angry investors and did considerable damage to the regional economy. Responsibility for paying this money eventually fell on the member utilities, or more specifically, their customers. When in 1988 WPPSS reach a $753 million dollar settlement with many of its investors, most of them received just 10 to 40 cents per each dollar they invested.
The disaster dubbed “Whoops” has haunted WPPSS for years. By 1998, the entity decided to change its name to Northwest Energy and paid another company with the same name $260,000 for the rights to that name. This was done primarily because the WPPSS name and the reputation that went with it was hurting business. For years the remains of the abandoned power plants have stood, as well as the debt owed by the rate payers of the utilities to remind us of the Whoops debacle.
This is a really unfortunate story, but there are many important lessons to be learned from it. First of all, it shows that nuclear power plants are and have always been very expensive to build, and even more expensive to build if the appropriate safety precautions are made. This is especially true if the bill is paid by investors and the government is not pitching in. Nuclear power is literally the most expensive known way of boiling water and we should not trust claims that it is cheap. Secondly, it teaches us that we should not lock ourselves into using energy plans that are unable to adapt to changes in the economy, safety standards and consumer preferences. The story of the “Whoops” debacle should serve as a warning, as well, to entities planning on building new nuclear plants here in Texas.
Northwest Energy has expanded its game into many other energy sources over the past 3 decades. These include wind, solar and biomass. Unfortunately they have recently expressed interest in not only expanding their coal burning facilities, but are also talking about building a new nuclear plant, possibly at the location of one of the sites abandoned during the eighties.
I would urge anyone who is not satisfied with the cost effectiveness or the safety of nuclear power to voice their concern and openly question the reasoning used to justify the building of a new WPPSS plant.
The Disappointed Environmentalist