Grant County PUD, Energy Northwest sign MOU for advanced nuclear project

The Grant County Public Utility District in Washington State with Energy Northwest and X-energy have signed a memorandum of understanding for the development of an advanced nuclear reactor demonstration project.

The partners agreed to collaborate and share resources to evaluate the goal of siting, building, and operating an X-energy Xe-100 advanced nuclear power plant at an existing Energy Northwest site north of Richland, Wash. The plant would have four 80-megawatt (MW) units and is scheduled to begin construction in 2024 and come online in 2027.

Under the TRi Energy Partnership, the parties agreed to evaluate each step of the project and identify the best approach to licensing, permitting, construction, operation, and ownership.

“This partnership signifies our strong interest in advanced nuclear energy as one of the best, lowest-cost options to reliably serve Grant County’s growing communities and support their continued economic growth,” Kevin Nordt, CEO of Grant County PUD, said in a statement. “The electricity generated by a Xe-100, and other advanced nuclear energy technologies, will be invaluable to our future carbon-free grid.”

Energy Northwest, a public power joint operating agency, is providing the project site and would operate the completed plant. Energy Northwest is also considering an ownership option down the road, Jason Herbert, director of government affairs at Energy Northwest, said.

Under the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, utilities in Washington have to serve retail load with 100 percent carbon dioxide free resources by 2045, so many are phasing out natural gas generation and looking for resources to fill in gaps when solar wind or hydro resources are not available. “That is what got us going down this path,” Herbert said.

Grant County PUD could also take an ownership stake in the project. “We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but it is a possibility,” Chuck Allen, public affairs supervisor at the PUD, said. “There are a lot of ways this could end up.”

Grant County PUD could also be the offtaker for the electrical output of the nuclear plant. Emphasizing that the project is still in the early stages of development and that the PUD is just at the “starting line” in the development process, Allen said the utility sees X-energy’s technology as “promising technology and a promising way to generate carbon free energy to meet firm load.” The advanced nuclear plant would be able to provide both baseload and load following power.

The PUD anticipates it will have retail load in excess of its peak capacity by 2026, “so we will have to do something,” Allen said, noting that the utility is in a “unique position” because its demand is growing so rapidly. Grant County PUD’s integrated resource plan is predicting 4.9 percent load growth through 2030.

“As we move forward with our partners, we need to be sure this project makes sense for our customers and for our county,” Allen said. “Right now, we think it could,” he said, though he noted that the utility still has more due diligence to do.

X-energy is providing the technology design concept for the small nuclear reactor, as well as the fuel design. Unlike most operating nuclear reactors, which use some form of water cooling system, the Xe-100 design uses helium as a coolant. The design also uses X-energy’s proprietary tri-structural isotropic (TRISO) fuel design that mixes and encases the uranium fuel with graphite and ceramic. X-energy claims that its fuel cannot melt down and that the fuel itself is the containment vessel, replacing the need for what has typically been one of the most expensive components of a traditional nuclear plant.

X-energy’s next step in its development process is building a fuel manufacturing facility.

The company has a pilot plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., but is looking for a new commercial site. X-energy filed an application for a new site with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in August and is “beginning to work with regulatory agencies on environmental applications,” Carol Lane, head of governmental relations at X-energy, said.

In October 2020, the Department of Energy, through its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, awarded X-energy $80 million in initial funding for the Washington project.

On March 1, X-energy signed an approximately $2.5 billion cooperative agreement with the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program under which the DOE will invest about $1.23 billion and X-energy will have to raise a similar amount through private sources.

The Northwest public power utilities are not the first to pursue an advanced small modular reactor.

In January, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and NuScale Power signed agreements to facilitate the development of the Carbon Free Power Project that would deploy NuScale’s small modular reactors design at the Idaho National Laboratory. Energy Northwest has the option to operate the SMR plant.

TVA, University of Tennessee sign MOU on advance nuclear reactor demonstration

In April 2020, it was disclosed that the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority had signed a memorandum of understanding to evaluate the development of a new generation of cost-effective, advanced nuclear reactors, such as small modular reactors, at TVA’s 935-acre Clinch River Nuclear Site in Roane County.