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Small nuke reactors: Search for site is planned

Nuclear power could get a lift, though on a small scale. Credit: Andrea Kirkby


The Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will begin searching for potential sites to  locate small modular reactors.

That information came from a recent Energy Northwest blog entry. Energy Northwest is lined up to operate small modular reactors courts under a Northwest venture allied with the federal Department of Energy. The most likely manufacturing site is a half-built reactor located just north of Richland and near Energy Northwest’s sole existing reactor.

The state’s main 2015-2017 budget — signed into law on June 30 — contains $176,000 for the site evaluation council to study potential manufacturing sites, according to Energy Northwest. The study was apparently inserted into the budget close to the last minute.

In fact, the final timing is a bit confusing.

Both the House and Senate voted to approve the final budget — which contains the $176,000 — on June 29. But the Senate voted on a stalled bill on June 30 that put the search into motion. That bill by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, did not go to a House vote. The Senate passed the same bill with some differences much earlier; it stalled in the House despite strong bipartisan support from the House Technology & Economic Development Committee.

The appropriate site evaluation council people and Brown could not be reached late Monday afternoon to discuss the June 29 budget allocation and the June 30 Senate bill vote.

This project is important to the Tri-Cities. Tri-Cities leaders envision a Boeing-style assembly plant to build small modular reactors, a long-range plan that is predicted to take a number of 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. 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 the never-finished Energy Northwest reactor site at the Hanford nuclear reservation. This is the former Washington Public Power Supply System Reactor No. 1, whose construction was abandoned because WPPSS defaulted on the bonds to build it. Since then, WPPSS changed its name to Energy Northwest, and the completed WPPSS Reactor No. 2 was renamed as the Columbia Generating Station.

The Tri-Cities interests hope to ship the prefab reactors elsewhere to assemble.

However, the $176,000 allocation is to research small modular reactor sites, not manufacturing sites.

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.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the study is to locate small modular reactor sites, not manufacturing sites.


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