By Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times
RICHLAND — Near the Columbia River, Clay Sell hopes to launch a new era of nuclear power with four small reactors, each stocked with billiard ball-sized “pebbles” packed full of uranium fuel.
Chief executive officer of Maryland-based X-energy, Sell aims to bring the project online by 2028 as part of a broader attempt to develop safer, more flexible reactors to redefine the nation’s energy future.
These efforts have gained support in the nation’s capital where many Democrats eager to make progress on climate change have joined with Republicans to funnel money into development. The federal Energy Department has received $160 million to help fund X-energy, and the infrastructure bill that cleared Congress on Friday ups that amount to cover almost half the projected $2.2 billion cost of the Washington reactor project.
“We believe what starts here in Washington is going to change the world,” Sell said to public-utility officials gathered Oct. 28 in Kennewick.
X-energy, along with Bellevue-based TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, and Portland-based NuScale, proposes reactors that can ramp up and down their electrical output much more rapidly than the large reactors now operating. This agility could help keep electrical grids in balance as more wind and solar power comes online.
The nuclear industry, in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the nation, has a history of pitching, and sometimes starting, projects that fail to come to pass. Skeptics say these next-generation projects are being oversold and face big challenges in producing competitively priced power without compromising safety and security, and in a time frame soon enough to help reduce carbon emissions by midcentury.
“I’m frankly speechless at the success that the proponents of these plants have had in bamboozling … a lot of government officials,” said Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and former chair of the Maine and New York utility commissions. “They should be shouldering a much heavier burden when it comes to the credibility of what they are saying.”
The NuScale project in southern Idaho involving small reactors cooled by water is furthest along in development, and has struggled with delays, design changes and escalating cost projections.
The claims of a meltdown-proof fuel are dismissed as “absurd” by Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who has researched nuclear reactor safety for many years.
Lyman questions whether the X-energy reactor would be safe enough to justify a design that does away with costly leak-tight containment buildings standard for the current generation of water-cooled reactors.
He says the safety of TRISO fuel requires the ability to consistently manufacture it to exacting standards. So far, he said, that has not been demonstrated in the United States.
In a report he published this year, Lyman notes a 2019 test of the fuel at a national laboratory in southern Idaho “had to be terminated prematurely” when monitoring indicated “the fuel began to release fission products at a rate high enough to challenge offsite radiation dose limits.”
If the project moves forward, Lyman calls for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a more cautious licensing approach that would first approve the reactor as a prototype before moving into commercial production.
“A lot of the rationale for why you would embark on this journey is not supported by the evidence,” Lyman said.