Energy: Will Small Nuclear Plants Revive Nuclear Power?


The tri-cities area was the home of a historic endeavor in nuclear energy. As part of the Manhattan Project, the first full-scale plutonium-production reactor in the world was built at Hanford to produce material for the first nuclear bomb. The site was also of one of the nuclear energy industry’s biggest embarrassments. Of five nuclear power plants started in the region, four were never completed, and the Washington Public Power Supply System, now called Energy Northwest, defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds in 1982, then the largest in Wall Street history.

Now, with concerns about climate change giving nuclear power a new lease on life, the Tri-Cities region thinks it can play a more positive role in nuclear development, specifically in building a new generation of nuclear reactors. These “small modular reactors,” or SMRs, a concept getting ready to move from the drawing board to the prototype stage, are smaller, safer and cheaper to build than the standard commercial reactors typically constructed today. One such reactor would produce less than 300 megawatts of electricity, compared to the 1,150 megawatts put out by the Columbia Generating Station at Richland.

SMRs would be appropriate in places that don’t have the massive demand for electricity that would justify a large commercial reactor. Key components of the plants would be designed and prefabricated in one place, then shipped and assembled where they are needed. New plants could be added as demand grows.

The U.S. Department of Energy is intrigued enough by the technology to spend up to $452 million during the next five years on at least two efforts to design SMRs to be built by 2022. The private sector is expected to match that amount. In November, the Energy Department chose a consortium consisting of Babcock & Wilcox, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel International for one prototype reactor called mPower.

While the Tri-Cities will not be involved in the initial design of the small reactors, it hopes to get some of the manufacturing work. “If we get the manufacturing, that’s hundreds to thousands of jobs,” says Mike Lawrence, former federal manager of Hanford and currently chairman of the Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative. The initiative is working on several energy-related ventures in theTri-Cities, including the SMR, radioactive medical isotopes and biofuels.

The Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council (TRIDEC) has continued to lobby the Energy Department, pointing to the region’s knowledgeable nuclear energy workforce, training programs and extensive nuclear facilities. Richland’s AREVA nuclear fuel manufacturing plant already produces 25 percent of the nation’s reactor fuel assemblies. Such fuel assemblies would be a key component in the SMRs.

“We’re taking a proactive approach,” says Gary Petersen, TRIDEC’s vice president for Hanford programs. The region’s existing nuclear infrastructure could trim $500 million off the eventual cost of development, Petersen notes.

Energy Northwest, which built the failed nuclear plants decades ago, remains cautious. “Frankly, the need is not there today,” says Dale Atkinson, Energy Northwest’s vice president for employee development and corporate services. He says the availability of cheap natural gas makes it uneconomical to build nuclear reactors, big or small. Experts at a briefing last spring for the staff of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee were equally skeptical, pointing to high operations and maintenance costs for SMRs when calculated on a dollars-per-megawatt basis.

Even if the SMR concept doesn’t succeed, the Tri-Cities could have a hand in another generation of nuclear technology. The region’s experts are being tapped as consultants for a new kind of reactor being designed by Bellevue-based TerraPower. The reactor uses a technology that has its roots in the Fast Flux Test Facility, a research “breeder” reactor that operated from 1982 to 1992 at Hanford. TerraPower 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 once every one to two years to refuel.

TerraPower CEO John Gilleland says he hopes to have a traveling wave reactor up and running by 2023. The first model will likely be a 500-megawatt plant. Although the basic concept is on track, says Gilleland, “It takes a long time to do it responsibly and safely.” And while it is too early to tell, Gilleland adds that there’s a possibly Washington could manufacture traveling wave reactor components for export.

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