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News / Clark County News

Nuclear power may again be on horizon for Clark County

Clark Public Utilities delays decision on helping fund study

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 2, 2023, 6:02am

Note: Clark Public Utilities gets electricity from a variety of sources, including hydropower, natural gas, wind and nuclear, as outlined in its Integrated Resource Plan. Energy Northwest’s proposed small modular reactor development, as described below, is separate from the Columbia Generating Station, the facility that currently supplies Clark Public Utilities and other utilities with nuclear.

Discussions surrounding potential nuclear projects are making the rounds in Washington as the state works to completely phase out carbon-emitting energy resources, and now talks have landed in Clark County.

Energy Northwest invited Clark Public Utilities to participate in a feasibility study on its proposed small nuclear reactor development in Richland. The agency is considering creating four to 12 modular reactors, projected to generate 320 to 960 megawatts of power — less than its existing Columbia Generating Station, which has a capacity of 1,200 megawatts. Clark Public Utilities currently buys nuclear from this facility.

During a Clark Public Utilities Board of Commissioners meeting in May, Energy Northwest representatives sought $200,000 of ratepayer funds for the study, which is projected to cost $4 million. The body did not approve the request, as its three-member vote was split.

Commissioners Nancy Barnes and Jane Van Dyke both requested more time to consider Energy Northwest’s request and speak with other utilities, saying further clarity was needed.

Commissioner Jim Malinowski, who sits on Energy Northwest’s board of directors, advocated for Clark Public Utilities’ involvement. By providing funding, the utility would be “keeping the effort live” and showing there’s regional support for nuclear energy, he said.

Following the May meeting, skeptics said that discussions surrounding Energy Northwest’s project haven’t been substantive or transparent to the public, given the agency’s initial request for ratepayer funds.

“It seems this proposed financial investment is on a fast track with no obvious reason for the rush and shortchanges the public’s opportunity to ask questions and weigh meaningfully,” Cathryn Chudy of Vancouver wrote to the Clark Public Utilities commission.

Commissioners are expected to revisit Energy Northwest’s small modular reactor developments at their June 6 meeting.

By contributing, the utility would receive information obtained through the study, as well as gain priority status in the facility’s future power sale agreements — should it be built — along with other investors, according to a memo from the commission’s general counsel.

Energy Northwest is meeting with Washington’s 28 public utility districts and municipalities for investments to its feasibility study, as well as reaching out to utilities in Oregon and Idaho. Eight utilities in Washington have contributed to date.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which receives power from the Columbia Generating Station, is not participating in studies related to small modular reactors, said BPA spokesperson Kevin Wingert.

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If viable, Energy Northwest plans to bring the small modular reactors online as soon as 2029.

“This is essentially insurance in a way that, at a very small cost, they can keep this moving forward and have the ability to come into a cost-effective project that’s going to deliver them clean power that might be very badly needed in early 2030s,” said Jason Herbert, Energy Northwest’s senior director for external strategy.

Nuclear, future energy demands

Washington’s Clean Energy Act, a commitment for the state to phase out all fossil fuel resources by 2045, is the throughline for many nuclear advocates’ talking points.

Earlier this year, Glenn Blackmon, Washington Department of Commerce energy policy officer, told the state Senate energy committee that Washington’s energy needs will increase 97 percent by 2050, or roughly 230 million megawatt-hours, as reported by Crosscut. To meet these demands, the state may need to import wind and solar from out of state.

Decommissioning coal and natural gas is inevitable, which brings up the question how the grid will operate. Proponents of advanced nuclear point to small modular reactors’ ability to generate energy without leaving a substantial physical and carbon footprint.

Following the Clean Energy Act’s passage in 2019, Energy Northwest commissioned a study to calculate the region’s future energy needs matched with the clean resources that are available to meet those demands.

“A key finding of this analysis is that achieving even very deep electric emissions reductions in the region can be accomplished at manageable costs, provided firm capacity is available,” wrote San Francisco-based consultant Energy + Environmental Economics. “However, the costs of achieving 100 percent greenhouse gas reductions exhibit a market increase when new firm capacity cannot be built in the region.”

Clark Public Utilities’ Energy Resources Department projects a 95-megawatt shortfall after 2028, and small modular reactors may fill future resource deficits.

Clark Public Utilities spokesperson Dameon Pesanti said small modular reactors could provide reliable energy as opposed to the irregularity and low capacity of wind and solar, making nuclear a contender as a future resource.

Current estimates from NuScale Power for small modular reactor generation range between $80 to $100 per megawatt-hour, a sharp jump from Clark Public Utilities’ 2023 budget for all energy resources, which falls at $40.60 per megawatt-hour.

‘Whoops’

Energy Northwest, formerly known as the Washington Public Power Supply System, faces suspicion from many longtime Washington residents, some of whom may still call the agency “whoops.”

The apprehension calls attention to the municipal corporation’s past inability to repay $2.25 billion in bonds, which were used to partially build two nuclear power plants in the state.

Chudy’s reluctance centered around Energy Northwest’s project stems from this history. She said there appears to be minimal consideration of how small modular reactors will influence electricity costs and, subsequently, how this will affect the utilities investing in it.

“This was one of the precursors to the (then) Washington Public Power Supply System’s municipal bond market failure,” she wrote. “The lesson does not appear to have been learned.”

In response to this doubt, Herbert said Energy Northwest’s current nuclear endeavor is different and blanketed with caution.

“If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” Herbert said. “We’ve been operating a nuclear plant for 40 years now. We know what the challenges are and what the risks are.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer