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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Nuclear energy getting Washington legislative support

Chad Sokol Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – Support for nuclear power has radiated through the Legislature this session with bills to promote power plant manufacturing and develop a nuclear science education program in public schools.

At the core of the argument for going nuclear is the emerging technology of small modular reactors, which can be built in a factory and shipped to another location for final assembly. About a third the size of conventional nuclear plants, modular reactors can be linked together to scale up power production. They could also be cheaper, if they are ever mass-produced.

The technology, which is being developed by Oregon company NuScale Power, has garnered support from clean energy proponents in state and federal government. The U.S. Department of Energy gave NuScale $226 million to help the company get its design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Gov. Jay Inslee voiced his support in an open letter. And President Barack Obama recently ordered federal agencies to get a growing share of their power from “alternative” sources, including small modular reactors.

It could be more than a decade before modular reactors are licensed and producing usable power, but some state lawmakers are placing their bets early. The Senate this month passed two bills, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, that could boost the state’s nuclear industry. A House committee folded the legislation into one bill, which is now headed to a budget committee for further consideration.

The bill would require the state Department of Commerce to seek out companies interested in manufacturing small modular reactors in Washington. Brown said the move could bring in high-paying jobs and bolster the state’s economy.

“The small modular reactor designs are, for the most part, U.S. designs,” said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-Cities Development Council, which has worked to attract manufacturers to the half-built reactor site on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The Department of Energy previously contracted with another company, Generation mPower, which later cut down its modular reactor program due to a lack of private investors. But NuScale has an agreement with Washington and Utah power utilities to build a prototype reactor in Idaho Falls by about 2023. The company is testing modular reactors in Oregon, Germany and Italy.

Opponents called Brown’s proposal “premature,” arguing that the federal government is behind on its plans to establish a permanent storage facility for the nation’s nuclear waste.

In 2011, the Obama administration stopped work on the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which would take used fuel from the Columbia Generating Station near Richland and much of Hanford’s radioactive waste.

Brown countered that waste from modern nuclear plants is more predictable and easier to store than waste from decades-old national defense projects.

“There needs to be a clear distinction between legacy waste and commercial waste,” she said.

Conventional nuclear plants generate 1,000 megawatts or more of electricity, while small modular reactors generate 300 megawatts or less. Each one could power about 23,000 homes, Brown said.

Her other bill would require the Department of Commerce and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to develop guidelines for a nuclear science education program in eighth through 12th grades. Students in some math and science classes would participate in workshops led by experts in nuclear, wind and solar energy.

While the technology could be a long way off, Brown said small modular reactors could become an important part of the United States’ energy policy.

“I just know that this state needs to be prepared,” she said.

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