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Small nukes: a long-term prospect for Tri-Cities?

The Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, where there's talk of a new kind of reactor. Credit: Courtesy of Energy Northwest

The Tri-Cities face a good wait before learning whether the area could be home to a new nuclear enterprise.

The designers of the nation’s first small modular reactors are expected to decide in about two years whether Washington is a good place to build a plant for manufacturing reactors’ components to assemble elsewhere.

NuScale of Corvallis, Oregon, is looking at several states scattered across the nation as potential manufacturing sites. The prime manufacturing site will likely be a place near where utilities are ordering a significant number of small modular reactors, said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer.

The Tri-Cities area hopes it will attract a manufacturing plant. And the Tri-Cities hopes to attract at least one small modular reactor to a partly-built reactor site in southern Hanford.

But numerous questions must be addressed before the nuclear-oriented Tri-Cities will know whether it will get either a small modular reactor or a manufacturing plant.

Recently, the state Legislature approved allocating $176,000 to have the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council study potential sites for individual small modular reactors in the state — with southern Hanford next to the Columbia Generating Station being a likely frontrunner. That report is due in December.

Meanwhile, a bill by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, to study putting a manufacturing plant in the same location has stalled in the House. The Senate easily passed it, and it received strong bipartisan support from the House Technology & Economic Development Committee before ending up in the end-of-session limbo that stopped numerous bills. Brown plans to revive the bill in the 2016 session.

Actually, economics and proximity to buyers will probably be the deciding factors on where NuScale will build both individual small modular reactors and its manufacturing plant, said McGough and John Dobken, spokesman for Energy Northwest (a consortium of Washington public utilities, including Seattle City Light).

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. Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear plant, produces more than 1,190 megawatts of electricity, equal to about a tenth of the state’s energy needs. Small modular reactors are supposed to be designed so extra modules can be added as needed — with 12 modules being the theoretical maximum. They are similar to the small reactors that operate on U.S. Navy ships.

The initial cost estimate to take the project from design to the first Idaho Falls reactor is roughly $1 billion. In recent years, the deep-pocketed global giant Fluor Corp. bought NuScale.

NuScale, Energy Northwest, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (a Utah version of Energy Northwest) and the U.S. Department of Energy facility at Idaho Falls have agreed to build the first such reactor in Idaho by 2023. NuScale plans to submit its design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by late this year, hoping for a green light about 40 months later.

Rep. Gerald Pollett, D-Seattle and a leading Northwest nuclear power critic, said, “Talking about siting such a thing is premature.”

Critics cite 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’s interest in getting its own small modular reactor will depend on if and when Energy Northwest’s member utilities will need extra power. At this time, the consortium does not expect that need to grow for the next few years, Dobken said.

Another wrinkle is that a 1981 state law requires that a public utilities group conduct a public ballot on any significant energy generation project that is likely to increase utility rates. Consequently, a public vote stretching from Seattle to Kennewick could lurk in the future of a small modular reactor project if Energy Northwest’s rates might be affected.

Chuck Johnson of the nuclear watchdog organization Physicians for Social Responsibility voiced concern about a scenario in which a single 50-megawatt reactor module would fall beneath the ballot threshold of the 1981 Washington law, and the addition of 50-megawatt modules one at a time could keep a state project below that public-vote benchmark.

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.

“We’re big on the technology and believe the technology should be made available,” Dobken said.

Such a manufacturing plant would need about 1.9 million square feet of space, employ about 1,000 people and would aim to produce 36 to 52 modules a year, McGough said. NuScale is looking at Hanford, the Southwest, Utah and several Midwest, Southern and Eastern seaboard states as potential manufacturing sites.

“The site is still up in the air. … It depends on who shows up with the orders first,” McGough said.

Gary Petersen, an official with the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council, said the Tri-Cities area is interested in providing a home for the proposed manufacturing plant. He pointed to the nuclear expertise of the local workforce, the receptivity of the local population to such a project and the fact that a southern Hanford site has easy access to railroad and barge transportation.

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