A small, next-generation nuclear power plant could start up operations in 2027 at a site north of Richland with the backing of federal and private funding.
The $2.2 billion project was launched last fall with an $80 million federal grant to Maryland-based X-energy, which has partnered with Energy Northwest, an agency formed by the state Legislature that operates the state’s only commercial nuclear power plant.
The new plant would share the same site as Energy Northwest’s nuclear power plant, on land within the Hanford nuclear reservation.
On Thursday, the partners signed an agreement with Grant County Public Utility District to support the development and demonstration of the new plant’s technology.
“This partnership signifies our strong interest in advanced nuclear energy,” said Kevin Nordt, Grant County PUD’s chief executive, who said the electricity generated would be one of the best options to serve the county’s communities with carbon-free power.
The project’s future hinges on meeting different development benchmarks that are expected to bring in more federal grant funding in the years ahead to cover $1.1 billion of the costs. The other half of the money to fund the project would need to come from other investment, according to Carol Lane, a spokeswoman for X-energy.
The plant design calls for enhanced safety features, and the use of a type of enriched uranium fuel that allows for longer periods of operation that can reduce operating costs. It is designed as a prototype for a new generation of smaller, more flexible nuclear facilities that will use fuel more completely, and thus generate less waste, according to Lane.
The four units of the plant would have the capacity to generate 320 megawatts of power, considerably smaller than the 1,200-plus megawatt capacity of Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station. A megawatt of power on average can provide enough power for more than 750 Northwest homes.
The current generation of U.S. nuclear plants is aging, and some have closed amid a struggle to provide power that can compete with electricity generated by natural gas, solar and wind power plants. The U.S. nuclear industry also has been shadowed by a decadeslong search for a long-term storage site for nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. A site underneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada had been targeted as a repository but the Obama administration in 2011 halted development amid fierce state opposition.
Advocates of nuclear energy say it has an important role to play in a future where nations are struggling to slow climate change and are working to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from coal and gas power plants.
“Advanced nuclear energy can and should play a vital role in our state’s clean energy future,” said Energy Northwest CEO Brad Sawatzke, who attended a Thursday ceremony at the Port of Benton. He co-signed a memorandum of understanding with Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy, and Nordt, of the Grant County PUD. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who represents the area, also was at the event.
In the years ahead, there is the possibility that a second nuclear power demonstration plant could be built at the Energy Northwest site.
Also last October, Bellevue-based TerraPower, chaired by Bill Gates, received an $80 million federal Energy Department grant, the first installment of what is intended to be a seven-year effort to test, license and build its first advanced nuclear-reactor plant.
Possible U.S. locations for the plant include the site at Energy Northwest, which is collaborating with TerraPower. That design calls for a 350-megawatt nuclear unit to be coupled with a molten salt energy storage system. The goal of this technology — called Natrium — is the creation of a more flexible generating plant that, when demand surges, could tap into the heat in the molten salts to produce up to 500 megawatts of power.