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$25M in state budget for new nuclear in Eastern WA. Will climate initiative derail it?

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: March 13, 2024, 7:32am

KENNEWICK — The Washington state Legislature has made its first significant investment in nuclear energy generation in more than a decade.

Before adjourning last week the Legislature unanimously passed a 2023-25 state supplemental capital budget that includes $25 million for Energy Northwest to continue its new nuclear development efforts.

“This is a big moment for our region,” said Rep. Stephanie Barnard, R-Pasco, who was instrumental in getting the money included in the budget. “The people of the 8th District are energy savvy consumers who understand the importance of clean nuclear energy.”

The capital budget still needs to be signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who could veto parts of it.

The $25 million also faces another potential hurdle. It is tied to the 2021 Washington state Climate Commitment Act, which caps and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But the act faces a repeal effort, Initiative 2117, on the November ballot.

Should the initiative succeed in repealing the Climate Commitment Act, the $25 million would not be given to Energy Northwest.

However, the Legislature likely would again consider budgeting the money for the new nuclear project.

Energy Northwest would like to use the funding to continue its ongoing due diligence, or feasibility analysis, and an environmental impact review for a new nuclear energy project to be located on leased land at a site adjacent to its existing nuclear reactor.

Energy Northwest’s goal is to be producing electricity using an advanced small nuclear reactor by 2031.

The $25 million would be added to about $15 million already set aside for the project, including $10 million from Puget Sound Energy and about $5 million from Energy Northwest’s business development funds and Northwest utilities.

“This ($25 million) investment reaffirms our state’s position as a committed leader in nuclear energy innovation,” said Bob Schuetz, Energy Northwest chief executive officer.

“It demonstrates critical support from the state for our ongoing efforts to deploy advanced small modular reactors in central Washington and will build upon Energy Northwest’s continued leadership in helping the state meet its commitment to increase production of carbon free energy,” he said.

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Energy Northwest now operates the Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power plant.

It is eight miles north of Richland on Hanford nuclear site land in Eastern Washington that was not used by the federal government for the site’s weapons work.

The plant produces 1,207 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 1 million homes.

Energy Northwest could potentially deploy as many as 12 of X-energy Reactor Co.’s small Xe-100 reactors. Together the modular advanced nuclear reactors would be capable of generating up to 960 megawatts of electricity.

New nuclear technologies, such as the Xe-100 reactors, are approaching commercial readiness and are designed to have simplified, standardized and scalable designs, according to Energy Northwest.

“This project holds great promise in providing clean, safe and cost-effective energy options as we strive to meet our climate goals and create new job opportunities in our state,” said Rep. Chris Stearns, D-Auburn, the prime sponsor of the capital budget proviso.

Barnard, whom Stearns acknowledged as being instrumental in getting the money included in the budget, highlighted the importance of diversifying energy sources to meet growing electricity demands.

“Nuclear energy provides safe, clean, dependable, dispatchable and affordable energy for our state,” she said.

Barnard also acknowledged the combined advocacy for the money of former Sen. Sharon Brown of the Tri-Cities; Sen. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick; Rep. April Connors, R-Kennewick; and Sen. Drew McEwan, R-Shelton.