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News / Northwest

Did WA Legislature drop the ball? Hundreds of Tri-Cities nuclear fuel jobs in the balance

By Wendy Culverwell, Tri-City Herald
Published: March 27, 2024, 7:56am

KENNEWICK — A tax breaks-for-jobs deal between Richland and French nuclear fuel manufacturer Framatome Inc. is headed into extra innings after the 2024 Legislature adjourned without passing two key bills.

Rep. Stephanie Barnard, R-Pasco, said she will need to reintroduce the bills awarding two types of tax breaks to nuclear fuel manufacturers in 2025.

Framatome and its partner, Ultra Safe Nuclear Fuels Corp., are considering a $360 million expansion of Framatome’s Richland nuclear fuel plant to produce fuel for the next generation of modular reactors.

The company has said it needs a reduced Business & Occupation tax rate and property taxes waivers as it considers siting the expansion in Richland.

If built, Framatome will add up to 200 jobs to the 550 already working in the existing facility.

One bill would have discounted Framatome’s B&O tax rate by about 40%. The company confirmed Tuesday that a lowered rate would help it compete in the competitive nuclear fuels market.

The other would have made it easier for the company to qualify for property tax breaks under Washington’s Targeted Urban Area (TUA) economic incentive program.

Joe Schiessl, Richland’s deputy city manager, said Richland is working with Framatome and will support the bills in next year’s Legislature.

Barnard told the Tri-City Herald she’s confident the momentum built in 2024 will carry through when the Legislature convenes for a longer session next January.

“The community support, advocacy and collaboration on this bill did not go unnoticed in Olympia,” said Barnard, who faces reelection this fall. “We made great progress. I plan to work with Framatome and other stakeholders during the interim, reintroduce the bill next session, and look forward to a successful outcome,” she said.

Framatome confirmed to the Herald that Richland remains part of its growth plan as the nuclear energy market expands. It plans to support the bills in 2025.

The Richland City Council is set to review the 2024 Legislature at its regular workshop session, 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 26, at city hall, 625 Swift Blvd.

Five years not enough

Framatome is one of three businesses with a TUA property tax deal in Richland. But there’s a hitch.

Washington state law gives participants up to five years to complete construction. That isn’t enough for a company licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

HB 2021 would have extended the time frame by four years, for a total of nine. Without it, Richland could lose the project, according to the city’s list of legislative priorities for the past session.

“The Framatome and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation facility will be constructed out of state if this five-year limitation is unchanged,” it asserted.

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The legislative delay does not mean the deal or promised jobs are in jeopardy.

Clean energy future

The B&O and TUA bills both got a hearing before the House Finance committee on Jan. 25, with supporters touting the economics and opponents deriding the safety of nuclear energy.

Barnard, together with Richland Mayor Theresa Richardson, Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin and, critically, Lance Stephens, Framatome’s Richland site manager, testified in favor of both bills, as did Karl Dye, president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council.

All encouraged lawmakers to embrace the Framatome and its partner as avatars of a clean energy future. The state of Virginia, where Framatome has offices, is considered an aggressive rival.

“We see this as a critical bill to stay competitive,” Stephens testified in Olympia.

In December, the Lynchburg (Virginia) News and Advance reported Framatome had announced a $50 million expansion that would yield 515 jobs there after Virginia successfully competed against North Carolina and Pennsylvania for that project.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin was pictured at the announcement, which included word that he’d approved a $5 million grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund to support the project, which is eligible for other types of support.

First TUA in Washington

Richland is the first entity in the state to take advantage of the TUA program. It was authorized by the 2022 Legislature and lets cities and counties waive certain property taxes for up to 10 years if job creation requirements are met.

Richland has awarded nearly $30 million in breaks to three businesses, including Framatome.

Last summer, it waived $2.6 million for ATI Specialty Allows and Component, which has initiated a $111 million expansion of its titanium melting plant in North Richland.

It also committed to waiving $20 million for Atlas Agro if the European giant builds its proposed $1.1 billion carbon free fertilizer plant at 1500 Horn Rapids Drive. That project hinges on securing 350 megawatts of non-federal power.

No taxes are waived unless the projects are built and employ at least 25 new people at family-wage jobs, $23 an hour.

The bills introduced by Barnard were HB 2120 (TUA extension) and HB 1981 (preferential B&O rates for nuclear energy manufacturing).