Bills promote nuclear energy, smaller reactors in Washington state

EnergyAssociated Press

Some lawmakers are pushing proposals to advance nuclear power as part of Washington's future energy mix.

Bills sponsored by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, promote nuclear energy, focusing on small nuclear reactors that are designed to be built in factories, shipped to a site by truck or train and assembled on location.

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The Senate Ways and Means Committee heard one bill Tuesday that calls for a $176,000 state study to identify possible locations for reactors that are about one-third the size of traditional nuclear plants, producing less than 300 megawatts.

"It's really important that we as a state get our arms around small nuclear reactors," Brown said at Tuesday's hearing. "We need to make sure we're not left behind," she added.

Supporters say small modular reactors have reduced upfront building costs, offer more flexibility in location and can provide safe, reliable energy. They say the state is a leader in nuclear energy and the industry holds tremendous promise for new jobs in this state.

Critics, however, say the small-scale reactors are still unproven. Because none have been built, questions remain about whether they're safer, more affordable or efficient. Opponents also dispute that it is clean or renewable energy because of the dangerous wastes created.

"The economics and the safety issues at this point are unproven, and it's premature for the state to make it part of its energy planning going forward," said Charles Johnson with Washington/Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Nuclear power made up about 5 percent of the state's energy mix in 2012 and about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity generation. Washington has one commercial nuclear plant, the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, which is owned and operated by Energy Northwest.

Some mostly Republican legislators have touted nuclear power as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Brown is the prime sponsor of a handful of bills related to nuclear energy that cleared a key legislative deadline last week.

Among them, Senate Bill 5114 provides a sales tax exemption for the production of small-scale reactors. Senate Bill 5113 requires the Commerce Department to coordinate and advance such reactors.

Two other bills, 5090 and 5089, would modify the state's renewable energy standard so that nuclear energy from small reactors could count toward meeting goals. Environmental groups have opposed modifying that standard.

In 2013, the Legislature set aside $500,000 for a study by the Tri-Cities Economic Development Council. That report in September concluded, among other things, that siting a small nuclear reactor at Hanford was technically feasible.

The whole idea is for them to assembled, shipped and installed at location, and "we think that we have a good location for assembly," said Carl Adrian, the council's president and CEO.