Building and operating small nukes in Tri-Cities gets big backing

For the first time, leaders in the Tri-Cities are speaking clearly in support of a new generation of nuclear reactors. And state legislators are listening.
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A prototype for a small modular nuclear reactor.

For the first time, leaders in the Tri-Cities are speaking clearly in support of a new generation of nuclear reactors. And state legislators are listening.

Tri-Cities leaders want a Boeing-style assembly plant to build small modular reactors, and they want one of those proposed reactors to be earmarked for a Hanford cleanup project.

Small modular reactors are tiny, 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. By comparison, Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station reactor is 1,150 megawatts. Small modular reactors are supposed to be designed so extra modules can be added as needed. This concept is still on the drawing board.

The leaders — mostly from the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council — outlined their case Thursday in Pasco to a state legislative task force looking at nuclear power as an energy option to combat global warming. TRIDEC is a politically powerful regional economic organization that represents most of the business and government interests in Benton and Franklin counties.

The task force emerged in the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee's push to reduce greenhouse gases. Republican legislators want to consider non-carbon-emitting nuclear reactors as a possible part of the solution. Enough Democratic leaders agreed, leading to the formation of the task force. The task force will send recommendations to Inslee and the Legislature.

Task force chair Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is also on the executive board of Energy Northwest. A few months ago, Sheldon said he does not believe this presents a conflict of interest because he is an "outside" board member charged with representing ratepayers in Energy Northwest matters.

Tri-Citians are enthusiastic about small modular reactors.

"The real benefit is being the assembly plant, and shipping them around the world. ... We're in a super position to assemble small modular reactors," said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC's vice president for Hanford programs. Tri-Cities leaders have flirted with this idea for years, but have always stopped short of fully embracing it. Thursday was the first time that local leaders supported being a center for small modular reactors in public without any hemming and hawing.

The Tri-Cities has a strong nuclear culture with a huge workforce of people experienced in the nuclear industry. "That's why the Tri-Cities supports the idea of small modular reactors," said Keith Moo-Young, chancellor of Washington State University's Tri-Cities campus.

Supporters of the concept say this approach would make it cheaper to build reactors and easier to tailor reactors complexes to meet a region's needs. Prefabrication and duplication would make construction easier.

However, Chuck Johnson, director of a nuclear task force for the Oregon and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, warned that many pitfalls await a small modular reactor industry.

These include the lack of track records on safety, cost and reliability for small modular reactors. The nation does not have a repository for used nuclear fuels — a problem that would grow with new reactors. Also, a major customer base for small modular reactors would be in foreign nations, which increases nuclear proliferation concerns, Johnson said.

And the investment community has been skittish about getting involved with this fledgling industry, Johnson said.

Up to 10 companies have indicated interests in building small modular reactors, but only three took the process far enough to be eligible for matching federal funds for the design work. One of those three, Westinghouse, quickly dropped out. A second is a Babcock & Wilcox venture that has not been able to get enough private funding to receive a significant amount of federal matching funds. The Babcock & Wilcox design of a 180-megawatt mini-reactor project has slowed to a snail's pace with spending at just $15 million this year.

The third project appears to be going full steam. This is NuScale Power of Corvallis, Ore. It grew out of Oregon State University research with a majority of the company now owned by the Fluor Corp., which used to have a subsidiary that was the lead contractor on Hanford's cleanup. NuScale is designing a 50-megawatt mini-reactor with the capability of hooking up to 12 of the small reactors together as needed, said Dale Atkinson, NuScale's chief operating officer.

Atkinson said $380 million is needed just to get a license application to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin a review. So far, NuScale has spent $230 million, expecting to submit a design to the NRC in the summer of 2016. Twenty-four utilities across the nation are working with Nu-Scale on how small modular reactors should be designed, manufactured and distributed.

A basic economic fact of life is that small modular reactors would need to be built in great numbers to be financially viable, experts testified Thursday. Johnson quoted Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick, whose corporation began design work and then quickly dropped out, as saying: "Unless you're going to build 30 to 50 of them, you're not going to get your money back."

TRIDEC's Petersen cautioned that construction of the first potential small modular reactor is at least 10 years from now.

Tri-Cities leaders noted that Hanford's long-delayed $12.7 billion radioactive waste glassification plant — currently due to go online in 2019, but likely to start work years later — will need power. Right now, Hanford uses 30 megawatts of power, but the glassification facility will bump that load up to 80 or more megawatts, said Mike Lawrence, leader of a TRIDEC task force on this subject. Lawrence was the U.S. Department of Energy manager of Hanford in 1989 when the feds and state mapped out the site's first legally enforceable cleanup timetables and standards.

Lawrence said a small modular reactor could be built on the Reactor No. 1 site near the Columbia Generating Station.

Washington has one functioning reactor: the Columbia Generating Station just north of Richland in Hanford, which is owned and operated by Energy Northwest of which Seattle City Light and other regional public utilities are members. The station was originally called WPPSS Reactor No. 2. WPSS tried to build five reactors at Richland and Satsop in the 1970s and 1980s. Only Reactor No. 2 was finished. The partially completed reactors 1 and 3 are now big concrete hulks. Massive cost overruns led WPPSS to default on its construction bonds in the 1980s. It was the largest bond default in American history at the time. WPPSS, a consortium of 27 state utilities, renamed itself Energy Northwest in 1999. It renamed Reactor No. 2 as the Columbia Generating Station in an effort to shed its "Whoops" nickname.

The basic infrastructure has already been built for Reactor No. 1. A TRIDEC study — financed by a $500,000 legislative appropriation — concluded that $300 million of the cost of building a small modular reactor could be saved by using the Reactor No. 1 site with its existing infrastructure.

Small modular reactors are not the only innovative nuclear power source on the drawing board in the Northwest.

Bellevue-based TerraPower is designing a reactor that would use a technology that has its roots in Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility, a research “breeder” reactor that operated from 1982 to 1992. TerraPower, which has Bill Gates as its chair and Nathan Myhrvold as vice chair, is designing a “traveling wave” reactor, which can also be described as a “breed-and-burn” reactor. The idea is to build a reactor that would be sealed and run uninterrupted for 40 years. By comparison, the Columbia Generating Station has to shut down periodically to refuel. The company's traveling wave reactor would use depleted uranium, which is generated by current reactors and regarded as waste.

TerraPower hopes to have a traveling wave reactor up and running by 2023. The first model would likely be a 500-megawatt plant.


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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