Small modular nuclear reactor powering PNNL, vit plant could save $300M, study says

A study commissioned with state money shows that installing a small modular nuclear reactor for Hanford would save more money than anticipated, according to the Tri-City Development Council.

"We were skeptical of that," said Mike Lawrence, chairman of TRIDEC's Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative. "But the study by URS was very detailed in looking at it. The savings are there. They are real."

TRIDEC has not released the full study, but gave the state Legislature's Joint Select Task Force on Nuclear Energy a preliminary report on the results Thursday at the task force's meeting in Pasco.

More than 100 people packed the room -- many of them Tri-City-area nuclear and power industry professionals -- for the hearing, which focused mostly on small modular nuclear reactors for the state of Washington.

Tri-City area officials have proposed using one of the small nuclear systems to meet the increasing power needs of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Hanford nuclear reservation after the vitrification plant comes online. The Legislature budgeted $500,000 for TRIDEC to study the benefits of a small reactor system at Hanford, and the agency hired URS Corp.

An estimated $300 million could be saved by putting the small modular reactor at Energy Northwest's never-completed WNP-1 reactor site, which is on leased Hanford land, Lawrence said. A previous "soft analysis" had projected savings at $50 million.

The savings would come from using the infrastructure for the WNP-1 reactor and studies done by Energy Northwest, including for the 2012 license renewal for its Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest's only commercial nuclear power.

Using the WNP-1 site also would cut the construction schedule by about one year, in part because so much data has already been gathered, Lawrence said.

A possible $165 million more in savings could be realized through the Federal Energy Management Program, a program that allows financial savings gained from cutting carbon emissions to be used for other site projects.

Now the vitrification plant project is proposing using 45,000 gallons of diesel a day for heat to glassify waste, which makes little sense if the Department of Energy is trying to cut carbon emissions, Lawrence said. Using a small modular reactor could save $800 million, but much of that savings likely would be funneled into other Hanford projects, leaving less for the small modular reactor, he said.

Siting the small reactor near an operating commercial nuclear power plant also would allow savings from sharing services such as security and emergency response, Lawrence said.

"There is no other community in the country better suited to support a new nuclear facility than this community," he said. "We are familiar with it. We have the technical expertise."

The power needs for the Department of Energy at Hanford will more than double in the next decade as the vitrification plant starts operating to treat Hanford waste, and DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory also is projected to grow and have increasing power needs, according to the study results.

The federal government is interested in small modular nuclear reactors because they would be faster to build that full-size reactors, have lower startup costs, have enhanced security and safety features, and would help the nation regain technical leadership in reactor technologies, said Ray Furstenau of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy.

The reactors are proposed to be manufactured in modules and then shipped to where they will be used, with additional modules added as demand for electricity production increases.

Advancing the small reactors, including for use at Hanford, will require DOE help, Lawrence said.

The cost to license a new nuclear design could be $1 billion, and there could be an additional $1 billion in other costs for a first-of-a-kind reactor, he said.

But DOE has the wherewithal to support renewable energy sources. It could consider loan guarantee programs and power purchase agreements, he said. He proposed a 50-50 industry and DOE cost-sharing arrangement.

The state could help by including small modular reactors in already mandated clean energy portfolios for utilities, he said. The reactors reduce carbon emissions just as wind and solar do, and provide a steady baseload power, he said.

A future reactor at Hanford would create 1,000 construction jobs and 360 operating jobs with average annual wages of about $85,000, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs. But he cautioned that the nation is not likely to have a small modular reactor operating until 2023-25.

The real opportunity for the Tri-Cities is as a site to assemble small modular reactors for shipment around the world, including to Asia, where interest in the reactors is high, he said.

The Thursday meeting was the second of the nuclear task force, which includes state Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick. The panel heard from 10 invited speakers largely in support of small modular reactors or nuclear power in general, most of them from the Tri-City area, and two against from the west side of the state.

The economics for small modular reactors are not favorable, with the cost of natural gas low and the cost of solar and wind continuing to decline, said Charles Johnson of Washington and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. What to do with nuclear waste also remains a problem, he said.

Energy Northwest vice president Brent Ridge said nuclear provides a hedge against natural gas prices.

Nuclear waste disposal is not a technical issue, said Gerald Woodcock, representing the Eastern Washington Section of the American Nuclear Society.

"It is a political issue," he said. "It is an issue kept alive by antinuclear individuals and organizations apparently for the sole purpose of impeding the use of nuclear energy."

He was among 18 mostly Tri-City area residents who used the public comment period to speak in support of nuclear power and small modular reactors.

The task force will tour the Columbia Generating Station on Sept. 26.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews