Feds mull building nuke plant in Centralia

'The small modular reactor is the new thing ... None have been built.'

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The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is considering constructing a nuclear power plant to replace either one or both coal-fired power plants in Centralia.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a think tank managed by DOE’s Office of Science, submitted an April 2021 study to DOE analyzing the feasibility of replacing Centralia Big Hanaford Power Plant’s one or both coal-fired power plants with small modular reactors (SMRs). The report is titled, "Techno-economic Assessment for Generation III+ Small Modular Reactor Deployments in the Pacific Northwest."  The full text is attached to this story. 

The electricity plant is located about two miles by air south of the Lewis County-Thurston County border and is about a seven mile drive from Bucoda. It is also known as the TransAlta Centralia plant.

“The project team chose the TransAlta Centralia plant site preliminarily as a site for a potential nuclear plant when it was believed that both coal fire plants at the site were going to be dismantled by 2025,” PNNL explained.

“If the coal plant is not converted to gas-fired generation,” the document stated, “a nuclear plant would replace lost jobs with about the same salary ranges or slightly higher for nuclear operators.”

The study explored building either a NuScale nuclear facility or having a General Electric-Hitachi BWRX-300 SMR. Both are said to have comparable features.

"The small modular reactor is the new thing for the nuclear industry.  None have been built, according to Jim Lazar, a retired electric power expert based in Olympia.  "One design has been approved for safety by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," the NuScale system, he added. 

According to the study, one reason the Centralia plant is being considered is to take advantage of the power transmission already in place at the site, which the proposed nuclear plant can hook into if the present power plants will be dismantled. The nuclear plant can also address transmission congestion issues PNNL identified south of the plant.

“In addition, the nuclear plant would be closer to load centers in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia than a plant located in Richland Washington,” added the report.

The study pointed out several advantages of replacing both present power plants, rather than just one, with nuclear facilities, such as the reduced need for skilled labor and security personnel, sharing operational facilities, maximized construction costs and sharing plant processing facilities which include waste management and storage.

PNNL’s study says the Centralia site, which lies around ten miles northeast of the city, “has more than enough area” for a nuclear facility, with its 7,155 acres, adding that other more favorable sites may also be found in TransAlta’s coal mining sites.

“One site alone is more than 800 acres,” PNNL pointed out. “The site easily accommodates the emergency protection zones of the NuScale plant.”

The study also acknowledged that the site is in a seismically active area, but assured that the facility’s design allows it to ride through earthquakes.

“The NuScale facility,” PNNL states, "is designed to safely ride through a significant seismic event.”

Jim Lazar, author of “Electricity Regulation in the US: A Guide”  explained that similar to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, the challenge with nuclear energy is that “about half of the energy they produce is at times that we don't need it.”

“For nuclear, that's overnight and on weekends, because they have to run continuously, Lazar said. “If you try to dial them back, the cost per kWh soars, because most of the costs are investment-related, not fuel-related.”

For either renewable or nuclear power to fit the community's needs, Lazar suggested investing in electricity storage and more flexible power loads.

"But nuclear costs twice as much to start with, and the storage has about the same cost either way,” added Lazar. 

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  • DeaneTR

    This is so clueless! Nuclear physics doesn't magically change when you make a reactor smaller, it actually massively increases the amount of deadly nuclear waste generated per kilowatt... Wire Magazine just did a full expose of this truth. Here's an excerpt:

    "DESIGNING SMALLER REACTORS may make them easier to build, but it also creates a problem: neutron leakage. Reactors produce energy by firing neutrons at uranium atoms, causing them to split. This sends out more neutrons, which in turn find other targets and cause a chain reaction. But some of these neutrons miss. Instead, they fly out of the core, hitting other parts of the reactor that become “activated,” or radioactive. Inside SMRs, there’s less space for the neutrons to jostle around in, so more of them leak. There’s no getting around the issue. “We’re basically dealing with gravity here, the laws of physics,” Krall says. “It’s something you have to engineer your way around.”

    One fix is to encase the core in materials like steel and graphite that reflect or reduce the speed of the neutrons rattling inside. But in time, these materials are being so thoroughly bombarded with neutrons that they become radioactive themselves, and need to be replaced. In addition, some of the reactor designs include sodium or liquid metal coolants that develop their own radioactivity issues. The authors point to experimental reactors in Scotland and Tennessee, where scientists have spent decades trying to figure out how to decommission parts that have become contaminated by the cooling systems. So that was the first problem Krall’s team found: The crowded conditions inside SMRs mean more neutron leakage, but the materials needed to contain such leaks inevitably become radioactive waste.

    Problem number two is the fuel. The other major workaround for neutron leakage is to use fuel that’s more highly enriched with Uranium-235—the atoms that are actually split. But the researchers estimate that even with a greater concentration of atoms to hit, these reactors will end up with higher volumes of leftover fuel, given a lower rate of “burn up.” Once spent, the fuel needs to be handled with special care. With a higher concentration of fissionable atoms in the waste, its “critical mass”—that is, the amount of material to sustain a chain reaction—declines sharply, making the waste more volatile. The result is a bigger volume of material that needs to be divvied up into smaller batches for safe-keeping.

    Those varied streams of waste complicate the calculus for a permanent storage facility, which needs to be carefully designed to ensure the surrounding geology can safely sequester the material for thousands of years." "And excerpt from new Wired article: https://www.wired.com/story/smaller-reactors-may-still-have-a-big-nuclear-waste-problem/

    Friday, June 17 Report this

  • Smokey

    @deaneTR Thank you for bringing attention to foley of this venture. @thejolt Thank you for covering this!

    Friday, June 17 Report this

  • Miller19

    This is a good idea.

    Friday, June 17 Report this

  • MikePelly

    This is a ludicrous plan. That site would be much better utilized by siting a grid tied battery and solar farm. Much safer, less expensive, and quicker to get online. A nuke needs to run 24/7 so it adds nothing towards meeting peak loads and wastes lots of power at times of low load needs.

    Friday, June 17 Report this

  • NuckeNerd

    I see folks trying to connect this Wired article that says SMRs would produce much more waste than existing larger reactors. The story is based on a study here: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2111833119

    The study included mentions of NuScale and GE-Hitachi's SMRs, but it shouldn't. They did not analyze either of those designs so mentioning them was a designed hit. What they don't mention is there have been PWRs and BWRs that were operated over lower thermal powers (<1000 MWt) and they do not produce enormous amounts of waste - and definitely not 2 to 30 times more waste as that hit piece suggests. The study make a better case for molten salt and other new SMRs producing more waste but the estimates are rudimentary.

    The only thing different about the NuScale and GE-Hitachi designs is added safety features, and that they'll be mostly underground. We already have plants that operate like those 2 designs, and the operating data from those plants clearly shows they produce less waste than their much larger counterpart BWRs and PWRs. That's not BS, the operating numbers are public.

    Friday, June 17 Report this

  • Mushthrullu

    This is awesome! Coal ACTUALLY kills people, DeaneTR.

    https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy

    Friday, June 17 Report this

  • FirstOtter

    Did anyone on the PNNL planning team remember a failed nuke plant called WPPS? (aka Woops)? They're easily seen from the highway in Gray's Harbor County. Those two enormous cooling towers have never been used. I don't believe the reactor was ever built.

    Nor have they explained what a 'significant seismic event' means. Any earthquake underneath a nuke plant is worrisome. How often does the SEattle Times front page a "BIG ONE COMING" and I'm not talking a 6.5 Nisqually Earthquake. True, Centralia is a long way from the coast but a big quake is going to cause issues in the entire region.

    This is just another boondoggle, just another pork barrel project.

    Saturday, June 18 Report this

  • TonyW33

    Here too is a link to a useful conversation about the waste stream issue with SMR designs.

    https://thebulletin.org/2022/06/interview-small-modular-reactors-get-a-reality-check-about-their-waste/

    Sunday, June 19 Report this

  • TonyW33

    And so everyone reading here knows, This is Lindsay Krall's employer:

    https://www.skb.com/about-skb/our-task/

    Sunday, June 19 Report this

  • Drutty

    Apparently we did not learn anything from Hanford, a forever leaking hazard!

    Sunday, June 19 Report this

  • FirstOtter

    To add to what makes this such a dumb idea, go to the following link to read the bungling that ultimately put the Satsop plant to down for good.

    https://www.historylink.org/File/ 5482

    An awful lot of money down the drain--money out of our pockets. But at least the plant didn't go online.

    Monday, June 20 Report this