Next nukes at Hanford might be little guys

The market may be about to ripen for small, modular nuclear reactors, like those on Navy submarines. Hanford is trying to position itself as a place for testing and manufacturing this breakthrough design.
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The B reactor complex, operating in the 1940s, was the earliest facility to turn out large amounts of waste at Hanford.

The market may be about to ripen for small, modular nuclear reactors, like those on Navy submarines. Hanford is trying to position itself as a place for testing and manufacturing this breakthrough design.

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.

That venture will demand a significant amount of power. Gregoire's letter said the glassification complex is expected to need 70 megawatts of elelctricity to operate, and the nearby Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in neighboring Richland will need almost another 30 megawatts. Putting a small modular reactor a Hanford would advance the technology while taking care of their power needs.

Carl Adrian, executive director of the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council, said the unfinished Reactor No. 1 already has infrastructure compatible to building a small modular reactor. That could trim $50 million from any future capital cost. 

Also, construction of the small modular reactor at Hanford could lead to the Tri-Cities hosting a facility that would build the prefabricated sections of those reactors to be shipped elsewhere in the United States and the world. Adrian  noted that the Tri-Cities already has a nuclear-oriented workforce and Columbia Basin College in Pasco already trains nuclear workers.

Gregoire's letter noted:  "The state of Washington leads the nation in exports  to the Pacific Rim. Small modular reactors, once developed, become a very exportable product that can be of great benefit to China, Korea, Japan, and to developing countries around the world. Hanford and the Tri-Cities could be a keystone to such manufacturing with direct access to ocean-going barges, major interstate highways, and railroads.

A major hurdle to small modular reactors is whether they will be a cost-effective source of energy. That cost-effectiveness depends on natural gas prices, according to Forbes magazine and the minutes of a May 9 briefing for the staff of the U.S. Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee. At the May 9 meeting, Phillip Moor, a nuclear industry consultant,  and Paul Genoa, senior director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said natural gas prices would have to rise significantly or carbon taxes be put in place in order to make small modular reactors economically competitive.

Experts at the May 9 briefing mentioned that the operations and maintenance costs per megawatt produced could be higher than those for a normal-sized reactors. However, they also said small modular reactors would be good sources for off-the-grid electricity and for serving remote areas.

They noted that small modular reactors are expected to see worldwide use: the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates 47-97 will be in service worldwide by 2030.  "Moor pointed out that China, India, and Russia are moving ahead with (small modular reactors) and suggested that the U.S. might miss the chance to lead this market," the briefing minutes note.

Also, the Tri-City Herald reported recently that Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and seven of Washington's nine U.S. representatives have sent a similar letter as Gregoire's to the Feds.
Washington is already involved in another effort to design a new type of nuclear reactor. Last December, the Associated Press reported that Bill Gates Jr. is working with China to develop a new type of reactor — with the caveat that the talks are still in their early stages and such a reactor would take several years to develop. It's a radically new technology, as you would expect from Gates.
Gates is helping fund a Washington-based company, TerraPower, that will develop a small reactor that will run with depleted uranium fuel with supposedly less leftover wastes than current reactors. The AP repooted that TerraPower has also discussed these plans with Russia and India.

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8