Nuclear technology is the new way to go green

Mar 18, 2015

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.

In an era when carbon emissions are becoming a major concern and clean energy is a popular cause, Washington is poised to become a center for the development of one of the greenest technologies around. Clean, safe, abundant, all it needs is a bit of encouragement from the state and a willingness to understand that today’s nuclear power is like nothing before.

Yes, nuclear power. We’ve come a long way since the days of tie-dyed T-shirts and no-nukes concerts and the reactor technology of the 1960s and ‘70s. The new generation of reactor design is safer, simpler and potentially cheaper than anything we have seen to date. The export potential is enormous, to a Third World now electrifying with coal. Washington is uniquely suited to become a center for the development, design and export of this small modular nuclear-reactor technology, and we have a small window of opportunity to establish leadership and make this industry our own.

I have sponsored a series of bills in the Legislature this year that demonstrate our interest in this most promising industry. Senate Bill 5113 would require the state Department of Commerce to coordinate and advance the siting and manufacturing of small modular reactors. SB 5093 would establish a nuclear-education program in our high schools. SB 5091 would declare nuclear power a form of alternative energy that qualifies under the state‘s voluntary Green Power program. For those concerned about storage of spent nuclear fuel, we have passed a memorial asking the federal government to develop a nuclear-waste repository, once and for all. These measures all cleared the Senate — some with broad bipartisan support.

Small modular nuclear reactors are quite a bit different from the big-reactor designs of the ‘70s. Instead of using a single built-in-place reactor core, they utilize a series of interchangeable and replaceable small reactors. A dozen together might be half the size of one of the big reactors of old. These small reactors use a more modern design with fewer moving parts, reducing risk of failure. And when one reactor goes offline for regular maintenance or repair, other modular reactors at the same facility can take its place and keep up the flow of power.

There are many exciting technologies being proposed.  Planning is under way for a first-of-its-kind modular reactor in Idaho that will begin serving the Utah power market within a decade — most likely at the Idaho National Laboratory, with support from Washington’s Energy Northwest. Technology isn’t the holdup — federal and state permitting procedures must be developed, and there is ramp-up time involved in developing facilities capable of producing the required components.

Now imagine if those manufacturing facilities were located here. Imagine if the next reactor were located at Hanford – Washington’s own nuclear industrial site, adjacent to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the talent base in the Tri-Cities. It could power Hanford’s new glassification plant, where legacy high-level defense waste will be converted to solid-glass form – and that by itself could spare us the need to consume 45,000 gallons of diesel fuel every day.

On a national level the states of Oregon, Idaho and Utah are becoming players. Nowhere in that conversation is our state, yet we have the intellectual capital and the resources.  It is easy to see the possibilities. Successful companies plan for how to get from point A to point B — Washington should do the same for energy.  Nuclear power is poised for a resurgence for economic and environmental reasons, and the question is whether we will seize the opportunity or let it slip away for lack of vision. It is better to lead, instead of looking back 10 years from now saying “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

Sen. Sharon Brown is chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.