A new, smaller type of nuclear reactor could find a home in Eastern Washington several years from now. But some big "ifs" would have to fall in place first.
The federal Department of Energy would have to approve designs for two "small modular reactors." Then the designer of one such reactor would have to pick a site in the southeastern corner of the Hanford nuclear reservation. And Tri-Cities interests would have to find a reactor designer interested in a Hanford site.
That's a lot of "ifs." However, some factors favor Hanford's selection as a site for such a new type of reactor. For instance, a good chunk of the right infrastructure is already in place at the half-built, never-completed Washington Public Power Supply System No. 1 reactor just north of Richland and just south of WPPSS' fully functioning No. 2. reactor. (In the 1990s, WPPPS changed its unfortunate (pronounced: Whoops) name to "Energy Northwest" and Reactor No. 2, or "WNP-2," to the "Columbia Generating Station.")
Another factor: the community college in the Tri-Cities already trains nuclear workers. And on May 21, Gov. Chris Gregoire wrote a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to support the idea of building a small modular reactor being built at Hanford.
The concept of small modular reactors have been around for many years. In fact, a U.S. Navy sub reactor is a small modular reactor. But a commercial small modular reactor is still on the drawing boards, even though several companies are studying numerous types of designs.
A small modular reactor is drastically smaller than a normal-sized power reactor. Columbia Generating Station provides 1,150 megawatts; small modular reactors are expected to provide no more than 200 to 300 megawatts. Small modular reactors will be essentially designed and prefabricated at one site and then shipped and assembled where they are needed. Small modular reactors would be targeted for places too small or remote to justify building a full-sized reactor. Each could be be easily expanded with an extra modular reactor if needed.
The U. S. Department of Energy plans to spend up to $452 million over the next five years on two efforts to design small modular reactors, to be built by 2022. The private sector is supposed to match that investment.
On April 30, Energy Northwest sent a letter to DOE saying that it and other utilities have been evaluating the potential to install a small modular reactor at its site in southeastern Hanford. While Energy Northwest has one operating and two never-completed reactors on Hanford, the consortium of Washington utilities is a separate entity from DOE and the massive federal nuclear efforts there. The unfinished Energy Northwest reactors are the remnants of a massive WPPSS bond default in the 1980s.
Energy Northwest's letter said it is not in the position to enter a contract now to host a small modular reactor. But it added that "if the time comes for us to embark on the addition of new nuclear capacity, the NuScale (small modular reactor) is a product that we wish to have available."
Meanwhile, NuScale Power LLC of Corvallis, Oregon, announced on May 22 that it is part of a consortium submitting a proposal to DOE to build a small modular reactor at the federal department's Savannah River, South Carolina site, a facility that is somewhat similar to Hanford. Several other corporations are also looking at designing small modular reactors.
On May 21, Gregoire wrote to DOE to support putting a small modular reactor at Hanford. She noted that the Western Governors Association released a report in June 2011 that said small modular reactors "can be a cost-effective option to provide power where large nuclear plants are not well-suited and without putting large amounts of capital at risk."
The biggest project at Hanford is the construction of a giant complex to convert a major part of 53 million gallons of radioactive fluids and sludges into benign glass, beginning supposedly in 2019.
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