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Measure to build nuclear reactors nears breakthrough in Legislature

A Nucor nuclear power control simulation room.

Washington is one House vote away from beginning to search for a potential manufacturing site for small modular reactors. That site will likely be at Hanford just north of Richland.

The measure appears headed to approval, although it’s currently stalled by larger legislative posturing. Democratic and Republican leaders made a complicated series of deals to get their main state budget passed, along with their transportation and capital project budgets. They also agreed to allow some stalled Republican bills to pass the Democratic-controlled House, and for some stalled Democratic bills to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

Since neither side trusts the other, the bills were passed in a slow, interlinked order. Each side would ensure that its pet bill was passing unscathed before addressing one of the other side’s pet bills, which was supposed to be unscathed in turn.

One of those pieces of legislation was a long-stalled bill to hunt for sites to build small modular reactors, which has been expanded to promote other alternative energy sources as well.

The Senate passed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, on a 31-12 vote Tuesday afternoon. The House did not get to this bill before it adjourned at 3:25 a.m. today because of a drawn-out and still-uncompleted legislative chess match on some transportation bills. Gov. Jay Inslee has supported the small modular reactor bill.

Originally, the Senate passed the bill 27-21 on March 6, and the House Technology & Economic Development Committee recommended 11-2 that the full House approve the bill. But the House’s Democratic leaders held the bill, until it was revived Tuesday in a flurry of last-minute deal making on several pieces of legislation.

Originally, Brown’s bill would have directed the Washington Department of Commerce to research potential sites to set up a facility to build small modular reactors. The revised bill expands that scope to include other alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power. And it folds in some language from another stalled Brown bill to develop some voluntary nuclear-oriented education demonstrations and help for high and middle school science classes. That feature was also expanded to include voluntary alternative energy demonstrations for science classes.

The bill also required a plan to deal with the radioactive wastes for any nuclear-related project.

“This is not the bill we started with. It went through many, many iterations,” Brown said.

The revised measure still drew some opposition.

“It is not the time to focus on this particular form of energy,” argued Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, referring to the nuclear component of the bill.

Tri-Cities leaders envision a Boeing-style assembly plant to build small modular reactors. This is a long-range plan and is predicted to take several years to develop.

Small modular reactors are prefab reactors whose parts are manufactured in one location, and then transported to the reactor site for final assembly. A modular segment would be a mini-reactor of 50 to 300 megawatts. Small modular reactors are supposed to be designed so extra modules can be added as needed — with 12 modules being the theoretical maximum.

Critics cited the lack of any track record on cost or safety for small modular reactors, plus concerns over the nation’s lack of a permanent place to store used nuclear fuel.

The concept is still on the drawing board. No one has built a commercial small modular reactor yet, although supporters contend they are similar to the small reactors that operate on U.S. Navy ships.

Energy Northwest (a consortium of Washington public utilities, including Seattle City Light), the NuScale company of Corvallis, Oregon, and the U.S. Department of Energy facility at Idaho Falls have agreed to build the first such reactor in Idaho by 2023. Tri-Cities interests hope to attract mass production of small modular reactors to a half-built, never-finished Energy Northwest reactor site at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Then the Tri-Cities interests hope to ship the prefab reactors elsewhere to assemble.

The estimate for NuScale to design and develop a prototype small modular reactor is roughly $1 billion. The global Fluor Corp. owns NuScale, giving it huge resources in money and expertise.

NuScale wants to submit its reactor designs to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by October 2016. Energy Northwest and NuScale are expecting a 39-month turnaround for the NRC to examine the plans. That means the feds could give a green light to build an initial NuScale-Energy Northwest in Idaho by early 2020. The sponsors target 2023 as a date when a small modular reactor could be operating there.

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