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Saturday, June 3, 2023
June 3, 2023

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Developer of next-generation nuclear power plants pulls plans for Washington project


SEATTLE — X-energy, a company developing a new generation of smaller nuclear power plants, has pulled its plans to build the company’s first demonstration project in Washington.

The high-profile $2.2 billion project was initially targeted for the federal Hanford nuclear site near Richland or a Grant County location, but is now headed for the Gulf Coast.

The project has received strong support from the U.S. Department of Energy, which has funds approved by Congress to cover about half its cost. Maryland-based X-energy, in a statement released Wednesday, said the project’s four small reactors will now be built in a partnership with Dow at a Gulf Coast chemical plant site that will be determined later this year.

X-energy initially declared Washington state the site of its first project as it forged partnerships that by spring 2021 included Grant Public Utility District and Energy Northwest, operator of the state’s only commercial nuclear power plant. The project would have helped define what role nuclear power might play as Washington, under state law, seeks to remove fossil fuels from its energy grid and reduce greenhouse emissions to net-zero by midcentury.

X-energy has been wrestling with an Energy Department timeline that calls for bringing the project on line by 2028. Nearly two years after X-energy announced that Grant County would take an ownership stake in the project, a site location had yet to be determined. The slow pace of efforts to move forward in Washington helped push the company to look elsewhere.

“We needed clarity on the site, and clarity on the ownership stake,” Clay Sell, X-energy’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday. “Building a nuclear project, even with substantial government subsidies, it’s no small matter.

Sell said that X-energy retains partnerships with Energy Northwest and Grant County and still anticipates building some of the company’s early plants in Washington.

Energy Northwest and Grant County officials say they still are hopeful of obtaining financing and moving forward developing new nuclear plants in Washington.

In a written statement, Bob Schuetz, Energy Northwest’s chief executive officer, said that “we remain committed” to developing a small, modular reactor in Washington by the end this decade, and that the X-energy technology “could be an ideal fit for our region.”

In what now appears to be a separate effort, Grant PUD is considering financing a next-generation nuclear power plant to help meet strong and growing demand for power from data centers and industry.

“We’ll learn from the lessons of this first deployment with Dow, so that we may quickly follow with our Xe-100 plant in Grant County by 2032,” said the Kevin Nordt, PUD’s chief resource officer, in a written statement. Xe-100 refers to X-energy’s nuclear reactor.

X-energy’s demonstration project calls for the four small reactors to collectively generate up to 320 megawatts of power, considerably smaller than the 1,200-plus megawatt capacity of the Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station. The reactors will be stocked with billiard-ball sized “pebbles,” each filled with uranium fuel.

In the new partnership with Dow, the reactor is supposed to provide a chemical plant with steam and electricity.

X-energy and other next-generation nuclear companies have received bipartisan support in Congress. Proponents say they would be able to ramp up and down their electrical output much more rapidly than the large reactors now operation. This agility could help keep electrical grids in balance as more wind and solar power come on line.

Skeptics say these next-generation projects are being oversold and face big challenges in producing competitively priced power without compromising safety and security, and in a timeframe soon enough to reduce carbon emissions by midcentury.

X-energy, as well as a plant proposed in Wyoming by Bellevue-based TerraPower, will require uranium fuel enriched with uranium-235 at levels higher than that used in existing reactors. This High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) has been commercially available from Russia but that changed last year with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Without the Russian HALEU, TerraPower, which is backed by Bill Gates, announced in December at least a two year delay from what was initially scheduled to be a 2028 startup.

Sell said X-energy’s project requires less fuel, and a less highly enriched fuel, than TerraPower. He noted there is a federally funded effort to launch U.S. commercial production of HALEU, and he suggested that the initial fuel could be obtained from the nation’s stockpiles.

Sell said he anticipates the first X-energy project built on a Dow site could be in operation by 2029.