Steam rises from the Columbia Generating Station, Washington state’s only commerical nuclear power plant, near Richland, in April 2003. Energy Northwest, which operates Columbia, plans to build one or more small modular nuclear reactors on land it leases from the Department of Energy. (Jackie Johnston / Associated Press file photo)

Steam rises from the Columbia Generating Station, Washington state’s only commerical nuclear power plant, near Richland, in April 2003. Energy Northwest, which operates Columbia, plans to build one or more small modular nuclear reactors on land it leases from the Department of Energy. (Jackie Johnston / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Small nuclear plants may be key to state’s energy mix

The state allocated $25 million to fund review of a modular nuclear reactor as a climate solution.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Among the projects funded in the supplemental budgets signed Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee was a $25 million feasibility and review study that will consider the pros and cons of building a small modular nuclear reactor near the state’s only commercial nuclear energy facility, located north of Richland.

The $25 million is part of the supplemental capital budget, an allocation from the revenue generated from the Climate Commitment Act’s cap-and-invest program, which since last year has been holding quarterly auctions of carbon credits, paid by the state’s heaviest carbon polluters. That money in last year’s and this year’s budgets is being used for a range of solutions for clean energy production, pollution and greenhouse gas reduction and correction of more than a century of harmful impacts from fossil fuels, in particular for disadvantaged communities, all meant to address the emissions’ impacts on a warming planet and people’s health.

Admittedly, nuclear energy is among the more controversial technologies with potential for joining the mix of cleaner sources of energy — meaning less responsible for greenhouse gas emissions — on which the state relies, including hydropower, solar, wind and energy storage projects.

The $25 million project faced a last-minute objection from an environmental group and a state tribal confederation that urged Inslee to veto the project. Columbia Riverkeeper, a longtime watchdog and critic of the lagging cleanup efforts at the federal Hanford Nuclear Site, also north of Richland; and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation sought the governor’s veto.

“Nuclear power, including small modular reactors, is too costly, too dirty, and too late to be part of the solution to climate change,” wrote Kelly Campbell, policy director for Columbia Riverkeeper, in a March 15 email to an Inslee adviser, as reported by the Washington State Standard. Campbell told the governor’s office the money would be better spent on proven clean energy technologies.

However, considering the pace of global warming and climate change — 2023 globally was the warmest year on record and the 10 warmest years in the last 174 have all occurred in the last decade — there remains ample reason to further investigate nuclear energy’s place in the mix of solutions, especially for a new and promising development in nuclear energy.

Granted, small modular nuclear reactors don’t have a long track record on which to judge their effectiveness in the climate fight. Only one such reactor has been in operation in Russia since 2020, while more are under construction in Canada, Argentina, China, South Korea and elsewhere in the U.S., according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations forum on the peaceful use of atomic energy.

But the technology does show promise as a key player in providing low-carbon electricity, the IAEA and others claim. Among those active in the development of smaller-scale nuclear plants is Bellevue-based TerraPower, which operates a research facility at Everett’s Paine Field. TerraPower is building a reactor demonstration project in Wyoming that will use a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled reactor dubbed Natrium.

As the name suggests, the reactors are modular and smaller than traditional nuclear power plants, generating about a third of the electricity of a traditional reactor.

Among their advantages, the modular reactors can be easier to site, have a smaller footprint and can be prefabricated for easier installation, making them potentially more affordable to build than larger reactors. They can also be built more quickly and can be brought online incrementally to meet increasing energy demand.

As well, the designs are generally simpler and usually rely on passive systems and safety measures that don’t have to rely on human intervention to shut down during an emergency.

The other advantage small modular reactors offer is their ability to generate a steady supply of electricity, an important partner for solar, wind and even hydropower, whose generation can be variable. Modular nuclear plants could be especially helpful during periods of reduced sunlight, winds or water flow at dams in keeping the power on without resorting to carbon-intensive electrical generation.

As with any nuclear power plant, there remains the issues of waste. Once the nuclear fuel has been exhausted it must be removed and stored elsewhere with some wastes remaining radioactive for thousands of years. Modular reactors still generate waste, but the IAEA says that the smaller reactors require less frequent refueling, every three to seven years, compared to every one or two years for a conventional reactor. Some modular reactors, in fact, are designed to operate for up to 30 years without refueling.

The $25 million the state is investing will be entrusted to Energy Northwest, a partnership of 28 public utility districts and municipalities in the state, including Snohomish Public Utility District. Energy Northwest has already started investigation of building up to 12 such modular reactors near its Columbia Generating Station, the state’s only operating commercial nuclear power plant, which generates about 1,200 megawatts.

Energy Northwest has signed a contract with X-energy and Dow to build a Xe-100 high-temperature gas-cooled reactor at its Columbia complex. X-energy, on its website, says the Xe-100 can generate up to 80 megawatts, and its modular design can be scaled up to a “four-pack” for up to 320 megawatts of power. One 80-MWe reactor could supply power to more than 13,100 homes.

Energy Northwest’s first modular reactor could be in operation by 2030. The agency intends to use federal loans for 80 percent of the project cost, with the remainder funded by private and public capital. The state’s $25 million will support the bid for the loans, funding early work including an environmental impact review.

Columbia Riverkeeper and others remain unconvinced, telling the Standard that the unproven modular reactors could instead produce two to 30 times the radioactive waste of a conventional reactor for the same amount of energy. As well, the mining of uranium, much of which occurs on Indigenous lands, is environmentally harmful, with radioactive dust polluting land and surface water.

No method of energy production, however, is without environmental impacts and drawbacks. The key in building a complementary mix of cleaner energy resources — and replacing the far-more-harmful and expensive generation of energy from fossil fuels — is in recognizing the potential harms of each energy source and mitigating those effects.

The $25 million from the carbon auctions — to tell us more about small modular nuclear reactors and their potential as a climate solution — is a smart and timely investment.

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