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WA governor urged to veto $25M for nuclear power project


WA governor urged to veto $25M for nuclear power project

Mar 27, 2024 | 10:09 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
WA governor urged to veto $25M for nuclear power project
​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Columbia Generating Station is the northwest's only commercial nuclear energy facility and is the third largest electricity generator in Washington state, behind Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. (Courtesy Energy Northwest)


Environmentalists and tribal leaders want Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to veto a $25 million earmark in the state capital budget for deploying the next generation of nuclear reactors.

Those dollars are set to go to Energy Northwest, a consortium of 28 public utility districts and municipalities that is in the midst of a yearslong effort to develop and, if feasible, deploy small modular nuclear reactors at a site in central Washington.

“This funding could be much better used for proven renewable energy technologies. Nuclear power, including small modular reactors, is too costly, too dirty, and too late to be part of the solution to climate change,” wrote Kelly Campbell, policy director for Columbia Riverkeeper, in a March 15 email to a top Inslee advisor.

Columbia Riverkeeper and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation both lobbied against including the money in the budget and now want Inslee to take it out. The governor is scheduled to act on the capital budget Friday morning in Seattle.

As envisioned, the advanced reactors would be installed near the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant operated by Energy Northwest, north of Richland, on land leased from the federal Department of Energy. The first could be operational by 2030.

The state money would come from the auction of air pollution allowances through the Climate Commitment Act’s cap-and-invest program. Lawmakers see nuclear power as a potential source of clean energy as the state looks to end its reliance on power generated from fossil fuels by mid-century.

“It was my proposal. I stand behind it,” said Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, the lead capital budget writer in the Senate. “We can’t get to our emission reduction goals without SMNRs (small modular nuclear reactors) in the mix.”

‘Critical support’

Energy Northwest is a joint operating agency formed by the state in 1957. Its utility district members serve communities in all corners of the state, including King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and represent a convergence of small and big public power forces.

The agency owns and operates four electricity generating facilities: White Bluffs Solar Station north of Richland, Packwood Lake Hydroelectric Project east of Packwood, Nine Canyon Wind Project in southeast Kennewick, and Columbia Generating Station.

Early last year it signed a deal with X-energy and Dow to deploy a Xe-100 high-temperature gas-cooled reactor at a Dow industrial facility on the U.S. Gulf Coast. At the time, Bob Schuetz, Energy Northwest CEO, called it the “preferred small modular reactor technology.”

In July 2023, Energy Northwest signed a joint development agreement with X-energy to build up to 12 such small modular reactors in central Washington, with the first coming online by 2030.

The agency is seeking federal loans to cover 80% of the project cost with the remaining 20% coming from private and public capital. To date, approximately $10 million has been invested in the project by Energy Northwest and supporting entities, including nearly $1 million from 17 northwest public utilities, according to an agency spokesperson.

In January, Puget Sound Energy agreed to invest $10 million toward the feasibility analysis.

The state funds would support the agency’s bid for a federal loan which, if received, would pay for tasks like an environmental impact review. State dollars would not be available until Jan. 1, 2025, to see how voters act in November on an initiative to repeal the climate program from which the money would come.

“This investment reaffirms our state’s position as a committed leader in nuclear energy innovation,” Schuetz said in an email. It “demonstrates critical support” from the state in the effort which will help Washington meet its commitment to increase production of carbon free energy, he said.

‘Dirty power’

The fight against nuclear power dates back decades in the United States. While backers argue it’s clean and inexpensive, critics contend it is dirty and dangerous.

“While the nuclear industry claims to be “clean,” it is an extremely dirty technology, beginning with uranium mining which decimates Indigenous lands,” said Simone Anter, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper in an email. The modular nuclear reactors “could produce two to thirty times the radioactive waste of older nuclear designs, waste for which we have no national repository and therefore no legal means for disposing of.”

And she said nuclear energy costs five times more than renewable energy options like solar and wind, and nuclear projects are “notorious for delays and cost overruns.”

House and Senate capital budget writers heard the concerns during the session but didn’t balk at committing the funds. 

“It doesn’t build any reactors. It is just to do the feasibility study,” said Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, chair of the House Capital Budget Committee. “As we transition away from fossil fuels we’re going to need some different sources and small modular reactors may be part of the answer.”