SMRs: A Critical Piece of Washington’s Energy Future

By: Nicholas Lipperd

The state of Washington has been an effective leader in the transition to clean energy production and must continue to lead boldly. In passing the Clean Energy Transformation Act, Washington pledged to become a carbon-free energy producer by 2045. While the State’s natural resources allow hydroelectric power to lead the charge, hydroelectric cannot achieve Washington’s goal alone. With electricity demands expected to grow between 30% and 90% by 2045, in addition to the statewide drought that has been hampering hydroelectric power over the last decade, other clean energy sectors must step up. Solar is the industry that garners the most attention, and wind certainly has a role to play, but neither can contribute a reliable and sufficient portion of electricity demands for the immediate future. In order for the State  to meet its energy goals while maintaining its status as an energy exporter rather than importer, Washington should expand its commitment to nuclear energy. 

In the simplest of terms, a nuclear plant is nothing more than a hot rock that makes steam. That steam turns enormous turbines that, in turn, create clean, carbon-free electricity. Washington’s only nuclear power plant, Columbia Generating Station, generates 1200 megawatts (“MW”), enough to independently power the city of Seattle. By comparison, a single wind turbine typically creates 2.75 MW and the solar panels on a home generate about 300 watts (0.0003 MW). Given technological advancements, well-designed safety systems, and carefully monitored training standards, nuclear reactor plants in the U.S. are exceptionally safe steam-producing rocks. Just as importantly, the nuclear industry — as a whole — is an exceptionally safe operating environment, with only 0.1 fatalities per trillion kilowatt-hours of production in the U.S., as compared to 10,000 fatalities in U.S. coal production (and 100,000 in global coal).

Despite the incredible power reactors safely produce, America’s nuclear industry has been slowly declining because of diminishing economic value. Why make an investment in an industry with so many permitting and safety requirements when coal or gas can be produced so cheaply? This short-sighted approach is one from which America is finally shifting. The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (“BIB”) and Inflation Reduction Act (“IRA”) have created opportunities and incentives for the nuclear industry that the state of Washington must seize so that it may continue to meet its energy goals and lead our country towards clean, sustainable energy production. The BIB and IRA allow states to resurrect the dying nuclear industry and capitalize on an energy source that is powerful, long-lasting, and carbon-free. The IRA, for example, invests $2 billion into energy research, functionally accelerating the permitting and production of Small Module Reactors (“SMRs”). The IRA also allocates a $25 per MW credit for any new carbon-free energy production and invests $700 million in uranium enrichment for production of more efficient reactors. The BIB allocates funding directed to the continued operation of existing reactors; $6 billion in credits incentivizes companies and states to extend the lifetime of their reactors. Nuclear power currently provides 52% of the nation’s 100% clean electricity, and these bills embrace the idea that nuclear energy is vital to achieve carbon-free energy independence.

Washington must capitalize on these bills and further integrate nuclear power into its plan for clean energy production. Nuclear energy currently accounts for just under 10% of Washington’s power production, while hydroelectric dominates at 66%. Hydroelectric will continue to dominate, but it is unable to meet consumer demand alone. Washington’s two largest hydroelectric plants are over 80 years old. Its largest, Grand Coulee, has produced 20% less energy in recent years due to drought. As climate change makes droughts more likely and thus hydroelectric less reliable, nuclear energy can operate as a counterbalance. During dry seasons, Columbia Generating Station operates at near 100% output continuously to make up for demand. When spring comes and hydroelectric surges, Columbia is able to reduce its output, allowing demand to be met while extending the plant’s lifetime. Nuclear energy is dependent on, to paraphrase the USPS, neither wind nor rain nor heat nor sun. 

Columbia Generating Station is licensed to operate through 2043. The station seems to already be taking advantage of BIB funding: it has plans to increase power output 15% by 2033 and will likely extend the lifetime of the reactor through 2063. That is a critical step in the right direction, but, simply put, it won’t be enough. Washington needs more reactors and more flexibility in their operation to support its hydroelectric generation and meet increasing demands. Should Washington enable new reactor plant construction to meet demands, and SMRs are the best bet.

SMRs, defined by the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) as modular nuclear power plants of 300 MW or less, are the next generation of nuclear reactors. A module design allows SMRs to be almost built completely in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module, reducing construction and maintenance costs and offline time. The small size means less heat energy to manage, less radioactivity during operations, and less radioactive waste. It also means the design is safer than current operating plants despite needing fewer safety systems. Due to their size and design, SMRs are so safe that they can’t melt down, the sensationalized concern of traditional nuclear plants. The small size also allows plants to be strategically placed in regions where power production or supply has traditionally been a challenge.

NuScale’s 77 MW is the leading SMR design for DOE approval. NuScale’s design includes installment plans of four or twelve reactors, depending on the energy demand for the region in which it would be installed. The small size and modularity allow flexibility of site location, expanding options to low water flow regions. This flexibility allows SMRs like NuScale to be built throughout Washington such that they are placed to efficiently bring energy to traditionally hard to supply regions while staying protected from natural disasters. SMRs can adjust power levels much more quickly and efficiently than large plants such as Columbia. Thus, placing SMRs near existing hydroelectric plants will allow nuclear power to more efficiently complement the hydroelectric plant’s output based on water flow. 

Even before the IRA made SMRs increasingly economically viable, Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (“EFSEC”) was scouting potential sites for SMRs. Because the DOE permitting process is cumbersome, sites with either existing energy operations or prior energy permits would enable the quickest installations. EFSEC has identified six of the former and nine of the latter with adequate conditions for SMR installation. With the IRA providing a pathway for cheaper, more efficient uranium and credits for clean energy production, Washington should take advantage and commit SMRs to some of these sites. 

Decades of design improvements prevent the world from experiencing another Chernobyl. Tightly regulated training standards and supervision prevents America from seeing another Three-Mile Island. Careful site selection and the design of SMRs are the nail in the coffin of nuclear disaster fears. In fact, the SMR idea has been flawlessly executed in Washington already. The U.S. Navy has operated SMR-style reactors incident-free in the most dynamic of environments for seventy-five years, with as many as a dozen such reactors operating on ships stationed in the Puget Sound. 
Nuclear power is energy that can be created without any carbon emissions that’s production does not rely on weather patterns. It is safe and reliable, but just as importantly, it produces magnitudes more power than other forms of energy. Not only has nuclear power earned a spot in Washington’s energy future, it is an energy source that Washington must embrace in order to meet its energy goals.

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