Nation’s 1st advanced nuclear reactor planned near Tri-Cities

Grant PUD would distribute the power produced from the project to its local and regional customers.

By Annette Cary / Tri-City Herald

RICHLAND — What could be the nation’s first commercial advanced nuclear power reactor would be built and operated near Richland under a partnership agreement signed Thursday.

X-energy, of Rockville, Maryland, will work with Energy Northwest of Richland and Grant County PUD to develop, build and operate an 80-megawatt reactor, the Xe-100, on land already leased by Energy Northwest at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington.

Advanced reactors are intended to be designed with enhanced safety features and a smaller footprint for their modular design concept.

Their smaller size and ability to quickly ramp up and down makes them a perfect complement to intermittent renewable resources, such as wind and solar, that rely on weather conditions to generate power, according to the TRi Energy Partnership.

Such reactors can help the nation transition from fossil fuels, it said.

The TRi Energy Partnership could be operating a reactor within seven years, and the project could be scaled up to four-reactor, 320-megawatt power plant.

“We hold the future of nuclear energy in this country on our shoulders here at Energy Northwest and the Tri-Cities, along with our partners,” said Brad Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief executive officer.

Energy Northwest now operates the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, 10 miles north of Richland in Eastern Washington. The reactor, which has operated since 1984, can produce 1,207 megawatts, enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle and its metro area.

Energy Northwest brings the ideal site to the partnership and proven operating experience and nuclear expertise, said Clay Sell, X-energy chief executive officer and a previous Department of Energy deputy secretary.

The X-energy reactor is expected to be placed at a site previously licensed when Energy Northwest, then called the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS, planned to build three nuclear reactors north of Richland. Two of the plants were canceled.

The site has access to the transmission grid and utilities and has been well characterized for nuclear development, which should should speed up the environmental review and current licensing requirements, Sell said.

Nuclear’s clean energy future

“As Washington state implements the Clean Energy Transformation Act — requiring 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 — new sources of reliable, affordable and emissions-free electricity will be needed across the nation,” said Sawatzke, Energy Northwest chief executive officer.

Grant PUD would distribute the power produced from the project to its local and regional customers.

“This partnership signifies our strong interest in advanced nuclear energy as one of the best, lowest-cost options to reliably serve Grant County’s growing communities and support their continued economic growth,” said Kevin Nordt, chief executive officer at Grant County PUD.

Sell called Grant County PUD “a forward-thinking, resourceful and extremely well-run utility with an interest in new resources to meet growing demand.”

The PUD, just upriver from the Tri-Cities and Hanford, owns two hydropower dams on the Columbia River, and with other projects has the capacity to power a city the size of Seattle.

The Xe-100 reactor is planned to use off-the-shelf components that can be manufactured and shipped by road and rail to sites where they are needed. It could be expanded beyond the 320 megawatt four-pack, as needed.

X-energy was awarded $80 million in October by the DOE Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program to help private industry demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors in the United States and maintain the nation as a global leader in nuclear energy technology.

It will pay for half of the project.

TerraPower, of Bellevue, also was awarded $80 million, but Sell believes X-energy will have an advanced nuclear reactor commercially operating first.

“When the Department of Energy announced the awardees of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program last year, I called it a ‘game-changer’ for the Tri-Cities,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., at Thursday’s signing ceremony in Richland.

“The TRi Energy Partnership is not only going to help shape the future of clean energy innovation for the Tri-Cities and Central Washington, but for the entire nation,” he said.

The planned Xe-100 high temperature, gas-cooled reactor will use a design that eliminates the possibility of a meltdown and will require a smaller safety perimeter compared to traditional plants, the partnership said.

It will use a low enriched uranium fuel encased in ceramic to make it impossible to melt, Sell said.

“We believe we will build hundreds of (the Xe-100 reactor) in Canada and around the world in the next 20 years,” he said. “But the first one will be here.”

Why Richland?

A week ago, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., promoted the Tri-Cities as an ideal place for the next generation of nuclear energy at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

“Today, over 12,000 nuclear skilled scientists, engineers and craft workers are working there in 100 different companies,” she said.

“Columbia Basin (College) and Washington State University campuses offer bachelor’s, master’s, and PhDs in nuclear-related fields, and the region hosts a strong apprentice program.” she said.

In addition DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland receives about $400 million a year for research and development in nuclear-related fields.

Sell, a witness at the hearing, said federal research funding to be matched with private sector funding was “a critical accelerator” to X-energy’s investment in an advanced nuclear reactor that it plans to sell around the world.

X-energy specifically wanted to be in Washington state for its first project and partner with Energy Northwest after seeing how Swatzke had dramatically improved operations of the Columbia Generating Station over the past decade, he said.

X-energy also looks forward to having a place in the Tri-Cities area’s record of historic achievement in the nuclear field, Sell said.

“This community knows about nuclear power. This community has a proud tradition,” he said.

As deputy energy secretary he worked to save the Hanford site’s B Reactor and open it to the public. It was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, built during World War II.

Sell spoke at the same podium Thursday used by President John F. Kennedy when he visited Hanford in 1963 for the ceremonial groundbreaking that gave N Reactor, built as part of the nation’s nuclear weapons program, a dual role as the largest nuclear power plant in the world.

Now the Tri-Cities skilled workforce is building the vitrification plant, the largest nuclear construction plant in the world, he said. The $17 billion plant will be used to treat radioactive waste left from producing plutonium for weapons from WWII through the Cold War at Hanford.

But the critical element in choosing partners in the Tri-Cities area was the way the market in the state is being shaped by the Clean Energy Transformation Act passed in 2019, he said.

“That is the most transformative thing that has happened in nuclear energy markets in the United States because it has created the commercial framework for nuclear to succeed and to succeed wildly,” he told Cantwell last week.

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