Nuclear may soon be getting a boost from Washington State in the north-west of the U.S. There, a bill is being presented to promote the manufacture and deployment of new nuclear reactors. It will provide generous tax incentives to nuclear investments in the state. It’s the sort of support that renewable energy technology is used to, yet nuclear struggles to get because of critics of nuclear energy. That opposition is very frustrating, explains James Conca, who quotes the IEA as saying nuclear is the lowest cost low-carbon energy source for the long-term. Washington State is one place that already has low-cost nuclear, so the population should be receptive. Conca points at advanced, small modular reactors already in the pipeline from TerraPower, X-energy, NuScale and Terrestrial Energy. He says the next generation of nuclear plants are almost ready, and Washington State has the nuclear-approved locations, experienced operators and maintenance personnel waiting for their arrival if and when the bill is passed.
The Washington State Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee drafted a new bill, SB 5244, encouraging the production of advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors, and components through the Invest in Washington Act.
Sponsored by Washington State Senators Sharon Brown (R), Perry Dozier (R), Jeff Holy (R), Mark Mullet (D), Ron Muzzall (R) and Shelly Short (R), this bill promotes the manufacture and deployment of new nuclear reactors.
These include small modular reactors that have a gross power output below 350 MW of electricity, are designed for factory manufacturing and ease of transport, or both, and advanced nuclear reactors having significant improvements over the present nuclear fission reactors, or a reactor employing nuclear fusion. Also included are components of these reactors.
The Invest in Washington program provides sales and use tax deferral on the construction and cost of new, renovated, or expanded manufacturing facilities. The program was established to evaluate the effectiveness of a program providing a tax incentive for businesses that invest in manufacturing facilities and equipment and reinvest those tax savings in employee training programs in the State of Washington.
There is no interest charged on deferred taxes, and the taxes may be repaid over a ten-year period.
These kinds of programs are needed to encourage new energy technologies as they get over the hurdles that usually beset new technologies. And these nuclear technologies are needed to address global warming and other energy-related challenges in the future.
In fact, the world’s top climate scientists, including Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Tom Wigley, Dr. Ken Caldeira and Dr. Kerry Emanuel, have all urged world leaders and environmental campaigners to support the expansion of nuclear power as the only way to decarbonise the globe. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists says we need nuclear to address global warming.
Is Nuclear too expensive? No
So it’s annoying to keep hearing anti-nuclear folks keep saying nuclear power is too expensive.
The latest 5-year report from the International Energy Agency demonstrates that, contrary to this popular opinion, nuclear is the lowest cost low-carbon energy source for the long-term.
However, many state and local governments influence these costs through fees and market structures that purposefully disfavour nuclear.
Which is why bills like SB 5244 are crucial.
Nuclear is cheaper over the long term
Renewable energy costs have continued to decrease in recent years and their costs are now competitive, in LCOE terms with associated subsidies and mandates, with dispatchable fossil fuel-based electricity generation in many countries, particularly natural gas.
The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants remains stable in that very range, but electricity from the long-term operation of nuclear power plants constitutes the least cost option for low-carbon generation.
Washington State is ready and waiting
Washington State has such a low-cost existing nuclear power plant in Richland, the Columbia Nuclear Generating Station (see image above), operated by Energy Northwest, one of the region’s largest producers of carbon-free energy. Energy Northwest is a not-for-profit state utility agency created in 1957 that sells its power at cost to 27 public utilities districts and municipalities across Washington State.
Along with the only commercial nuclear power reactor in the Northwest, Energy Northwest also operates solar, hydroelectric and wind projects. Their combined output, over 10 billion kWhs per year, can power the city of Seattle.
The new reactors covered in Bill 5244 need a home. Energy Northwest can provide a physical place to site the reactors in locations already approved for siting nuclear plants, as well as various envelope capabilities such as a working nuclear operating license, experienced operators and nuclear maintenance personnel, and a surrounding community in the Tri-Cities, Washington that is favourable to nuclear power.
Energy Northwest also has previously-approved environmental impact statements for more reactors on its property, although they would have to be redone for a new technology. Fortunately, these new reactors are easier, smaller and simpler than previous ones and have less environmental impact, making their EIS’ even easier.
So these advanced reactor projects fit right into their mission.
Small Modular Reactors in the pipeline
There are some obvious nuclear reactors that this bill seems to target, some relatively local to Washington State, and that have significant government and commercial backing.
TerraPower out of Bellevue, Washington, the brainchild of Bill Gates, together with GE Hitachi, has developed the 345 MWe Natrium™ sodium fast reactor with a molten salt energy storage system.
X-energy’s Xe-100 is a modular 80 MWe (scalable to a 320 MWe four-pack) high temperature gas-cooled reactor that can integrate into large, regional electricity systems as either a base-load source or to load-follow renewables, making it ideal for optimising the grid’s use of low-emission, intermittent renewables and other clean power.
NuScale out of Corvallis, Oregon has a small modular nuclear power plant, made up of small 77 MWe modules is the farthest ahead in terms of approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (see image above).
The Canadian nuclear company Terrestrial Energy has an advanced Integral Molten Salt Reactor (see image below) that was awarded a grant from the Canadian federal government and selected by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) as one of three potential designs to be licensed and constructed at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in southern Ontario by 2028.
So we have the technologies, we have the need, we just need the support. And bills like SB 5244 are a good start.
James Conca is an earth and environmental scientist and a regular contributor to Forbes magazine