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Energy secretary: Tri-Cities ‘irresistible’ for growing a clean energy hub

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Jennifer Granholm, energy secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, is guided on her her tour of the historic B Reactor by Colleen French, of the U.S. Department of Energy, and Patrick Jaynes, B Reactor operations manager, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, while visiting the Hanford Nuclear Site near Richland, Wash. The face of the nuclear reactor, which was used during World War II to develop the nuclear bomb, is visible behind the group. The historic location is part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.
Jennifer Granholm, energy secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, is guided on her her tour of the historic B Reactor by Colleen French, of the U.S. Department of Energy, and Patrick Jaynes, B Reactor operations manager, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, while visiting the Hanford Nuclear Site near Richland, Wash. The face of the nuclear reactor, which was used during World War II to develop the nuclear bomb, is visible behind the group. The historic location is part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. (Bob Brawdy/The Tri-City Herald via AP) Photo Gallery

RICHLAND — The Tri-Cities is well positioned to move from “cleanup to clean energy,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on her first visit to the Tri-Cities.

Leaders representing Tri-Cities economic and other interests pitched the concept to her at a roundtable discussion, with their message bolstered by Granholm’s tours of the Hanford site and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland Thursday and Friday.

Tri-Cities residents have always been good at innovating, said David Reeploeg, vice president of federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council during the discussion.

Hanford’s historic B Reactor ushering in the atomic age was followed by such projects as the first detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, on Hanford land and PNNL’s frequent advancements in science and technology developed, said Tri-Cities leaders.

The next step, they said, is using the assets — including those developed at Hanford, where PNNL got its start — to transition from Hanford environmental cleanup to expand the Tri-Cities’ role as a clean energy hub.

The Tri-Cities has an “irresistible mixture” of assets for a clean energy economic future, Granholm agreed.

Its leaders have the vision, it has a skilled workforce and it has the national lab, she said.

And it has the benefit of being in a state that’s already No. 2 in the nation for clean energy as President Biden focuses on clean energy goals and signs new legislation with clean energy development tax incentives into law, she said.

In 2015 the Department of Energy released 1,600 acres of unused Hanford site land just north of Richland for economic development with the goal of developing a clean energy park.

Some will be used near the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant for a solar generation project, and an irregularly shaped section of land to the north and west of Richland’s Horn Rapids Road and Stevens Drive is planned for industrial use, ideally clean energy projects.

Tri-Cities clean energy

TRIDEC is promoting assets that including the area’s inexpensive clean energy, its access to clean water and its well-developed transportation system, said Karl Dye, TRIDEC president.

But the area likely will need more electricity available to bring home projects such as an innovative clean fertilizer manufacturer or a manufacturer of new batteries for energy storage, Dye said.

It is pitching the the Tri-Cities now to a company looking for a site for a plant that would make hydrogen and then convert it to ammonia for fertilizer, rather than using traditional petroleum-based methods, Dye said.

The plant would employ about 200 people and could distribute fertilizer to farms across Eastern Washington, he said.

However, the company will need more energy than can be currently supplied, he said.

There also is a possibility that the Tri-Cities could use unneeded and clean Hanford site land to produce advanced nuclear power systems for use elsewhere, said Bob Schuetz, chief executive of Energy Northwest in Richland.

Energy Northwest has teamed with X-energy to place one of the small nuclear power reactors on its leased Hanford land just north of Richland near its current, full-size commercial nuclear power reactor.

If development of the project is successful, X-energy will be looking for a manufacturing site for its modular reactors, and the Tri-Cities has the transportation, clean water, clean power and land needed for the project, Schuetz said.

Energy secretary PNNL tour

On Thursday, Granholm learned about some of the clean energy science and technology being developed in Richland that could help help move the United States towards its clean energy goals.

Among the laboratories she saw at PNNL was the Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center, where real time data on the electric grid flows in 30 to 60 times a second for analysis by PNNL’s high performance computers.

The center is used to analyze grid problems that lead to cascading outages, to help develop ways for the grid to incorporate wind and solar energy, and to improve planning for wildfires that can knock out the grid. Improvements of the grid worked on at the center are paired with an emphasis on cybersecurity.

“If we want to get to our goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035, we have to significantly expand the grid, and the great work that’s being done here at the lab will inform the decisions that we make,” Granholm said.

With investments from Congress, including the $17 billion for PNNL and other national labs in the the CHIPS & Science Act, the United States is better positioned to develop technologies that will expand clean energy, patent the technologies, and manufacture and use them in the United States, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. She accompanied Granholm on the tour of PNNL.

First Hanford visit

On Granholm’s tour of the Hanford nuclear reservation adjacent to the Tri-Cities on Friday, she was introduced to what Reeploeg described as the area’s “can do” attitude that it could translate to leadership on clean energy.

She toured the historic B Reactor, where workers built the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor in just under a year, as the United States raced to develop a nuclear bomb ahead of Nazi Germany.

The nuclear reservation would produce two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

The work left the 580-square-mile site with radioactive contamination and 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste stored in underground tanks until it can be treated. Now about $2.6 billion is spent annually for environmental cleanup of Hanford.

Granholm visited one key part of the cleanup project, the vitrification plant, which she said should be ready to start glassifying some of the least radioactive tank waste for permanent disposal at the end of 2023.

To date $13 billion has been spent to build the plant, with additional construction being considered as DOE looks at how best to treat the additional high level radioactive tank waste.

Granholm also briefly answered some news media questions about Hanford on Friday.

Hanford site waste

She said more will be known about the path forward for cleanup and treatment of all Hanford tank waste after closed door discussions between DOE and Washington state conclude.

The vitrification plant was not planned to be large enough to treat all tank waste, and construction on parts of the plant that would handle high level radioactive waste have been stalled since former Energy Secretary Steven Chu raised technical issues in 2012.

DOE and the state could agree to other ways to handle both low activity and high level radioactive waste and prepare it for disposal, with the Hanford vitrification plant playing a lesser role.

Although there is not direct local input on the talks that launched in 2019, Granholm said the state of Washington is looking out for the interests of the public.

She said she could not give an end date for the talks but that she hoped a path forward for tank waste would be set in the near future.

The outcome of the talks will inform the size of future Hanford budgets, she said.

Just before her visit, the governors of Oregon and Washington, Tri-Cities economic development officials and Hanford watchdog groups sent a letter to President Biden calling for Hanford spending to increase by at least $1 billion a year.

Funding for Hanford site environmental cleanup is at a historic high now, Granholm said, but agreed that more funding will be needed as negotiations with the state set a path forward on waste treatment.

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