Western group proposes nuclear plant

Consortium applies for a federal grant to fund the permitting process

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YAKIMA -- A consortium of Western utilities and a nuclear reactor designer have submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy to build a small nuclear reactor to meet future demand for carbon-free power.

The proposal seeks millions of dollars in grant money to walk the project through the vigorous Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and permitting process, which takes years. The earliest a reactor could be built is likely 2023.

Among those participating: Energy Northwest, a public-power consortium that operates the only commercial nuclear power plant in the Northwest and was once party to the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history over a failed project to build five nuclear reactors in the 1980s.

Energy Northwest has previously floated the prospect of increasing its nuclear power generation among its 27 member public utilities and municipalities. The idea has stalled in the past due to the high financial investment required and the pushback against nuclear power in one of the country's most environmentally conscious regions.

This time around, Energy Northwest has partnered with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and modular reactor designer NuScale Power, based in Corvallis, Ore. The utilities have offered no money up front, but will assist with the permitting process and retain the first rights to build a project should it get approved.

Energy Northwest, with experience operating a nuclear facility, also has the first right to operate a reactor if one is built under the proposal.

The utilities are not out a dime but will benefit from the opportunity to learn about the process, further the development of the modular concept and position themselves to be first, maybe second, to benefit from such a project, said Mike McGough, NuScale Power's chief commercial officer.

At some point, there will need to be additional power generation in the region, and Energy Northwest is trying to be positioned to support that in a technical and financially responsible manner, Vice President Dale Atkinson said.

Modular technology

The Energy Department has been making grants to companies exploring nuclear technology that can be delivered in modules. A modular reactor sits in one container with no coolant pumps, piping or pressurized vessels required.

Traditional nuclear reactors take 10 years and more than $10 billion to build, McGough said, while NuScale's modular reactor could be built in three years for $2.5 million.

Energy Northwest, based in Richland, operates hydro, wind and solar projects, as well as the 1,150-megawatt Columbia Generating Station -- the only commercial nuclear power plant in the Northwest -- for its 27 member utilities and municipalities in Washington.

The plant generates 3 percent of the region's power, but it didn't come without a struggle. The plant was the only one to survive a proposal for five nuclear plants in the 1980s -- a collapse that spawned what was then the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. The fiasco forced Energy Northwest to change its name from the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS, which came to be pronounced as "whoops."

Consumers continue to pay for the project's collapse in their power bills, though the region has relied on relatively cheap power from hydroelectric dams for decades.