UW expert: ‘Nuclear is absolutely essential’ as feds fund next-gen nuclear revitalization

Mar 14, 2022, 1:49 PM | Updated: Mar 15, 2022, 8:53 am
The Columbia Generating Station (Credit Energy Northwest)
(Credit Energy Northwest)

Last week, TerraPower, a Bellevue-based nuclear power venture backed by co-founder Bill Gates, won an $8.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for its work to improve safety methods related to the recovery of uranium from nuclear fuel.

The company uses patented technology, Natrium, a sodium‐cooled fast reactor, that potentially represents a new generation of nuclear power. The company is sponsored under a larger push backed by the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), with current plans to begin demonstrations in 2028 at a Wyoming location.

TerraPower is among 11 projects that received $36 million in funding last week.

“Developing novel approaches to safely manage nuclear waste will enable us to power even more homes and businesses in America with carbon-free nuclear energy,” wrote U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a news release. “ARPA-E is doing just that by supporting companies and universities that are working on next-generation technologies to modernize advanced reactors and strengthen the nation’s clean energy enterprise.”

Scott Montgomery, a University of Washington professor with 25 years in the energy industry, insists that nuclear energy must be a part of the domestic energy production conversation, a topic more prescient in recent weeks as the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict spikes gas prices domestically, while Russian petroleum products have difficulty in finding international buyers.

“Nuclear is producing the most electricity for the amount of fuel and the amount of land that it uses,” Montgomery told KIRO Newsradio’s Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin.

“It is most reliable, 24/7. It is the highest performing source of power, which means it gets the highest level of its rated capacity over 90%,” he said. “If we shut down all the nuclear power that we have, it can never be replaced by wind and solar alone. We would have to build other types of facilities like natural gas plants, and natural gas is already a larger source of emissions in the U.S. than coal is. So nuclear is absolutely essential.”

Maryland-based X-energy, which has selected the Hanford, Washington, location for a separate next-generation nuclear power generator, was the recipient of $1.1 billion under the congressional infrastructure package in November. The project would be the state’s first new nuclear power generator since the 1970s. The Tri-Cities area is home to the Columbia Generating Station, Washington’s only commercial power plant, located on the outskirts of Hanford.

That station, along with the state’s robust hydroelectricity infrastructure, is among the reasons the texture of Washington’s energy supply is unique within the United States as a leader in carbon-neutral energy production. But the state has a long road ahead to meet its carbon reduction goals under the Climate Commitment Act passed last year. Nuclear is appealing to Montgomery as other forms of energy production are inconsistent in terms of their supply which makes it difficult to run a large city utility.

“It’s very important to understand that renewable energy in the form of wind and solar does not produce in the same way that hydropower and nuclear power do,” Montgomery continued.

“It produces intermittently so that you get electricity, and then you don’t, whereas the continuous production of electricity has to be there to back those sources up,” he explained. “We do not have the storage technology to store the electricity when it’s very high, let’s say from solar, and then replenish it when the sun is less strong, because of clouds or obviously at night.”

“Right now, that storage technology looks like it’s a couple of decades away to work really well on a major utility-scale. In other words, a scale that would help supply power to a major city, not to a small town. We are not at the stage where solar and wind can really power anything of tremendously large consequence. They can’t run the city now.”

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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UW expert: ‘Nuclear is absolutely essential’ as feds fund next-gen nuclear revitalization