Nuclear power measures face questions

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Critics raised questions Wednesday about three nuclear-related bills that the Washington Senate has passed and a House committee is considering.

The big topic at the House Technology & Economic Development Committee hearing was whether Washington should find a place to build small modular reactors, which would be produced for utility customers. Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, is sponsoring this proposal and the two other nuclear-related bills that the committee examined. The Senate passed the small modular reactor bill 27-21, mostly along party lines.

Tri-Cities leaders envision a Boeing-style assembly plant to build small modular reactors. This is a long-range plan and is predicted to take several 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.

The concept is still on the drawing board. 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 a prototype in Idaho by 2023. Tri-Cities interests hope to attract mass production to a half-built, never-finished Energy Northwest reactor site at the Hanford reservation.

Brown's bill would direct the Washington Department of Commerce to research potential sites to set up a facility to build small modular reactors. Gov. Jay Inslee supports this bill as a way to switch some of the generation of electricity to sources that produce no carbon emissions. "We believe small modular reactor technology … should be considered in a non-carbon world," said Tony Usibelli, representing the governor's office and the Commerce Department at the hearing.

The estimate for NuScale to design and develop a prototype small modular reactor is roughly $1 billion, said Jim Gaston, general manager for energy services and development for Energy Northwest. 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 a NuScale-Energy Northwest prototype in Idaho by early 2020, Gaston said. The sponsors target 2023 as a date when a small modular reactor could be operating in Idaho.

At the hearing, 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.

"Small nuclear reactors are still in the prototype stage. ... The prototype has never been tested in power production yet," said Thomas Buchanan of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

"I don't think that the Department of Commerce should work on this until it has a design that passes the NRC," said Chuck Johnson of the same organization.

Johnson argued that a single small-modular reactor would not generate enough electricity to efficiently recover its construction and operating costs. He suggested that multiple modules at one site are the only way to make the concept cost-effective.

Deborah Wolpoff of Olympia pointed to the cancelation of the nation's proposed nuclear fuel repository inside Yucca Mountain, with no replacement lined up. "I think it is irresponsible to promote this technology that produces this waste that we have no solution for," Wolpoff said.

Committee member Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, wondered why the Legislature should support a new nuclear industry while Hanford's Cold War nuclear wastes are decades from being cleaned up.

Energy Northwest ran into massive financial troubles in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, Energy Northwest was known as the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS. The never-finished WPPSS Reactor No 1 site a Hanford -- next to Energy Northwest's 1,150-megawatt Columbia Generating Station reactor -- is where Tri-Cities leaders want to locate a small modular reactor facility. Much of the basic nuclear-oriented infrastructure has already been installed.

Another Brown bill, which the Senate passed 44-5, would create an education program aimed at providing nuclear science lessons to students in the eighth through 12th grades. Qualified American Nuclear Society members would be brought in for classroom sessions. Also, science teachers would receive instruction on nuclear science in order to teach the subject in the classrooms. School participation would be optional. Washington State University would be in charge of the overall program, which would be financed by an undetermined mix of state and private money.

Representatives of Washington State University and Energy Northwest supported the bill. However, committee member Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D- Seattle, questioned why legislation is needed to set up a program. "Why don't you do this right now?" she said. Gaston replied that while such a program is doable in the Tri-Cities, which is filled with nuclear experts, it would be difficult to set up elsewhere in the state.

Mary Hanson of Physicians Social Responsibility argued that the bill would give the nuclear industry influence over students, while other energy industries would not have the same access. She said American Nuclear Society members might be less versed in nuclear power’s health issues than its technical ones.

The third Brown bill, which the Senate passed 29-20, would add nuclear power to the list of alternative power sources that certain utilities can use to meet a state requirement to offer their customers voluntary participation in alternative energy purchases. The current list of green sources includes wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy.

Energy Northwest and the state’s public utility districts supported the bill as a way to diversify sources of electricity. Physicians for Social Responsibility opposed it, contending nuclear energy is not a renewable power source.

While the GOP-dominated Senate passed the three bills, the question is whether a Democrat-controlled Technology & Economic Development Committee will recommend passage -- and whether the House Democratic leaders will allow floor votes on them.


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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