Remembering Cassandra

By Win McCormack
(Oregon Magazine)
November 1983

Last June 17, when the inevitability of a default by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) on its $2.25 billion bond obligations for nuclear plants 4 and 5 was becoming evident, the Oregonian ran an editorial entitled "Region Won't Escape Debts." The thrust of the editorial—that, in one way or another, the Northwest is going to have to pay through the nose for the WPPSS fiasco—was undoubtedly correct. It was not the content of the editorial that aroused my emotion, but rather its disingenuously lofty attitude and self-righteous tone. One sentence in the editorial particularly incited me. It read:

"The contracts that these utilities signed, while now judged by the Washington Supreme Court to have been signed illegally, nevertheless were negotiated and signed in good faith, albeit under different energy circumstances and without benefit of today's hindsight." (Emphasis mine.)

You might have thought, reading this editorial, that the Oregonian was objectively surveying, from the grand, impersonal heights of disinterested and community-spirited journalism, an issue in which it had no actual involvement itself. You would not have imagined, if you did not already know, that throughout the 1970s, on these very same editorial pages, month in and month out, sometimes weekly and occasionally daily, the Oregonian was the chief and most obdurate public promoter of the kind of unbridled and unnecessary expansion of nuclear power facilities in the Northwest that eventually resulted in the biggest municipal bond default in American history. And you would certainly never have guessed, from reading the Oregonian editorial, that there were many people in Oregon who, as clearly as Cassandra foresaw the doom of Troy, were able to foresee this financial debacle from the very beginning.

The Oregonian's June 17 editorial, along with the WPPSS-related chain of events in general, put me in mind of a small and disreputable publication that also existed in Oregon during the 1970s. This publication was called the Oregon Times. Its very first issue, in March 1971, contained a lead article on the subject of nuclear power. The article read, in part:

"There must be a stop to the constant litany by all power organizations that we face disaster unless the Northwest supports without question all adventures into nuclear power production. . . . It is urgent that we begin to base our planning on what we can afford, in terms of both availability and costs. . . . No one will realistically argue that there will not be a need for the expansion of power facilities and resources. The question is one of degree and prudence: we can't afford a profligate attitude any longer." (Emphasis mine.)

During the early and mid-seventies, largely because of its incessant opposition to nuclear power, the Oregon Times acquired an unsavory reputation in the Portland business community for being "negative" and "anti-establishment." Much of its editorial content that was so described, however, simply pointed out emerging economic problems in the nuclear power industry—problems unacknowledged or scornfully denied by the Oregonian in its editorials and articles for the period—that have now, for the Northwest at least, proven disastrous. In January 1975, for instance, the Oregon Times warned:

"The honeymoon with nuclear power may be nearing its end. Of 191 nuclear plants under construction or in the planning stages, there have been eight cancellations and 86 deferrals nationwide. According to Wall Street financier Jerome Katzin, there has been a 20 percent reduction in overall construction of power generators, but a 41% cutback in nuclear construction." (Emphasis mine.)

In June 1975, a guest editorialist in the Oregon Times expressed his and the publication's views on nuclear power:

"It is inevitable that rate increases beyond reason will be required to finance the multi-billion dollar costs of nuclear plant construction."

In the period from 1975 to 1979, the Oregon Times went through a wrenching transition from an "underground rag" to a commercially viable, general interest publication. In October 1978, in a conscious and now successful effort to rid itself of its past muckraking baggage for good, its name was changed from Oregon Times Magazine to Oregon Magazine. A few months before the name change, in April 1978, Oregon Times Magazine published the last of its articles on nuclear power. The article offered the following quote from a Northwest energy consultant:

''I'll tell you who's in for a rude awakening. It's those good folks across the river in the state of Washington. . . . They've got five nuclear plants underway. When. . . . that shows up in their power rates, people are going to wonder who ever said nuclear power was cheap. Their dream world is going to come crashing down real quick.” (Emphasis mine.)


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