Legislators are pursuing answers about small nuclear reactors' value

Members of a legislative task force remain interested in an innovative energy approach but they also say some questions need more study.
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A prototype for a small modular nuclear reactor.

Members of a legislative task force remain interested in an innovative energy approach but they also say some questions need more study.

A legislative task force has decided it needs another year to make its planned recommendations on what role nuclear power might have in the state’s efforts to deal with climate change.

Facing a list of unanswered questions, the bipartisan House-Senate group said Wednesday it will hold off making recommendations to the full Legislature that had been planned Wednesday. The task force is looking at whether and how Washington should pursue nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source. But task force members said narrower, specific matters must be addressed prior to the group making any recommendations.

"We've learned a lot, but we still have a lot of questions," said Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.

The task force unanimously voted to informally continue its efforts through the 2015 legislative session, while waiting to put language about formally continuing their work into the 2015-2017 state operating budget. The budget probably won't be voted on until the end of the 2015 session.

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. A good number of Democratic leaders agreed, leading to the formation of the task force.

The task force has focused on small modular reactors — 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.

Unanswered questions include the life cycle costs of building, maintaining and operating a small modular reactor, plus the method of disposal of the used nuclear fuel from such a reactor. Critics of small modular reactors have also cited the lack of track records on safety, cost and reliability for them — plus questions on how interested the investment community is in the fledgling industry.

Currently, the United States has no place to stored used nuclear fuel for the thousands of years needed. Construction of a site within Yucca Mountain, Nevada, had begun, but then was stopped because of opposition by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. However, the recent elections will put Reid in the minority party in the Senate in January, potentially opening the way to a restart on Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for spent fuel.

"I'd feel more comfortable if we had a national repository story,” said state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, a task force member. He added, “The attitude that we'll deal with it when we're done with it has got to go away."

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said, "We need more data." Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said the Northwest Power and Conservation Council should study the economics of the matter.

Task force members also wanted a better economic analysis of how small modular reactors would affect Washington's power situation and what the economic ripple effects would be from setting up a manufacturing center for small modular reactors in the Tri-Cities, which has a significant amount of nuclear expertise. Tri-Cities interests have lobbied the task force to set up a small modular reactor center at Hanford, which is also home of the Columbia Generating Station.

"We have to decide whether Washington will be a leader or a follower in this emerging technology," said Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick.

The Columbia Generating Station, the state’s lone reactor, is owned and operated by Energy Northwest, of which Seattle City Light and other regional public utilities are members. The reactor was the only unit completed out of what was envisioned as a network of five nuclear power plants in Washington. The partially completed reactors 1 at Hanford and 3 at Satsop on the Olympic Peninsula are now giant concrete hulks.

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 in cost savings could be achieved by using the Reactor No. 1 site with its existing infrastructure for a small-reactor project.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R- Ferndale, suggested that, while the task force continues its work, a bill should be introduced in the Legislature to direct the Washington Department of Ecology to develop a prototype of a permit to build small modular reactors.

The task force has focused on a small modular reactor being designed by NuScale in Corvallis, Oregon, and members visited NuScale's operation.

While the task force still has questions, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, an 890-square-mile U.S. Department of Energy reservation in eastern Idaho, appears to have a head start over any effort at Hanford.

NuScale, Energy Northwest and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems combined in 2013 in an undertaking to bring the first small modular reactor into operation by 2024, according to the Corvallis Times-Gazette. That project's preferred site is INEEL, the paper reported. The governors of Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona have endorsed the project, which still needs a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license.


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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 johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8