Small, modular reactors for Hanford?

The News TribuneJanuary 7, 2014 

Nuclear power is showing signs of life again in this corner of the country. It’s a good thing.

Those of a certain age remember when the Washington Public Power Supply System’s grandiose nuclear plans suffered financial meltdown in the early 1980s.

The public utility consortium’s unfortunate acronym – WPPSS – quickly morphed into “Whoops!” after skyrocketing costs and declining demand projections forced the agency to cancel four out of five reactors in various states of contruction. Ratepayers and municipal bondholders lost billions of dollars in the fiasco.

Thirty years later, older and wiser nuclear advocates are dipping their toes in the cooling pond again. In the meantime, nuclear power technology has changed radically for the better.

The 2013 Legislature earmarked $500,000 to study the possible creation of a new nuclear power industry at Hanford. Companies were recently invited to bid on the research work, ultimately designed to attract federal and private investment.

This would not be the traditional industry, in which civilian power plants are built on site from scratch. If all goes as hoped, small reactors would be manufactured in the Tri-City area and sent to utilities far and wide. They’d roll out of factories, a little like Boeing 747s.

The small modular reactors would have many advantages over conventional power plants, most of which are scaled-up versions of reactors designed in the 1950s for U.S. naval vessels.

Their single biggest advantage would be safety.

Over the last half-century, Western-design nuclear plants have proven to be almost incalculably safer than fossil fuels, even factoring in the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Fukushima so far has resulted in no known radiation deaths, though subsequent evacuations led to the deaths of hundreds of Japanese. (Many, feeling stigmatized, committed suicide.)

Coal, in contrast, kills thousands of people year in and year out through pollution, mining accidents and other common dangers. Coal and oil dump billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere; nuclear plants have no carbon footprint.

Conventional reactors do have an Achilles’ heel: their need for a constantly pumped supply of cooling water. In contrast, small reactors would automatically switch to passive cooling features if they lost power.

Their standardized designs would allow advance licensing at the factory. Their smaller size, output and cost would allow utilities to install a single unit to meet existing demand, then add more units as demand rises.

That flexibility might have allowed WPPSS to avoid the debacle that resulted from simultaneously tackling five immense, 1,000 megawatt reactors.

The mini-reactors may yet prove too pricey to compete with fossil fuel. But to the extent they could, they’d be a crucial means of reducing carbon emissions in smaller power markets. And investors might stop feeling shivers down their spines whenever they think of Washington state and nuclear power.

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