Action Needed: Stop New Nuclear Reactors

The Columbia River has a new threat: a proposal to build nuclear reactors.

Action Needed: Stop New Nuclear Reactors

The Columbia River has a new threat: a proposal to build nuclear reactors, called small modular nuclear reactors, within the Hanford Nuclear Site and roughly three miles from the Columbia’s remarkable Hanford Reach.

Hanford is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. government’s mission at Hanford is cleanup. But the federal government leased an area of Hanford for private development, known as the Energy Northwest campus. This area is currently home to Washington state’s only commercial nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station, and prime real estate for nuclear developers. Energy Northwest, formerly known as the Washington Public Power Supply System, or “Whoops,” once intended to build a fleet of nuclear plants at the site. It built just one and famously defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds, the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history at the time.

Last year, Columbia Riverkeeper launched a campaign to protect the Columbia and its people from more nuclear reactors and waste. In the following pages, we break down what’s proposed, the risks, why nuclear power is a false solution to the climate crisis, and how you can spring into action.

The Proposal

X-energy wants to site four small modular nuclear reactors at Energy Northwest’s corporate campus north of Richland, WA. Small modular nuclear reactors, also known as SMRs or SMNRs, produce up to 300 megawatts of power. The reactors are assembled in factories and transported for on-site installation. The proposed small modular nuclear reactor is X-energy’s high-temperature gas-cooled Xe100 reactor. Each reactor is stocked with billiard ball-sized “pebbles” packed full of uranium fuel.

In 2020, the U.S. Dept. of Energy awarded X-energy $80 million in initial funding to build the Xe-100 reactor through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Fun fact: X-energy’s CEO, Clay Sell, served as Deputy Secretary of Energy for the U.S. Dept. of Energy from 2005 to 2008. In April 1, 2021, X-energy, Energy Northwest, and Grant County Public Utility District signed a memorandum of understanding to partner and support the development of the Xe-100 reactor. To receive funding from the federal government, X-energy had to show they could meet a seven-year time frame from testing to building the reactor. The company claims the Xe-100 reactor will be fully operational by 2028.

A Place Worth Fighting For

Hanford, and the surrounding Hanford Reach National Monument, holds immeasurable significance to Columbia Plateau Tribes. Hanford encompasses a large area within culturally significant lands of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), Nez Perce Tribe, and the Wanapum people. Native people have used the Hanford area since time immemorial to hunt, fish, gather food, trade, and live. This area has incalculable traditional and religious significance to Columbia Plateau Tribes and is home to multiple traditional cultural properties, traditional use areas, as well as significant ceremonial sites.

Hanford is also a hotspot of biodiversity. The Columbia River’s Hanford Reach is particularly significant: the reach boasts 50 miles of free-flowing river, and the largest remaining spawning grounds for fall Chinook salmon on the mainstem of the Columbia. And there’s more. The Hanford area contains the largest remaining intact shrub-steppe ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, providing habitat for a diverse range of native plants and animals.

A Risky Business

High-temperature gas reactors, such as X-energy’s planned Xe-100 design, are susceptible to minor failures that may trigger an accident. Typical problems that occur with this technology include graphite dust accumulation, water or oil intrusion, and fuel failures. These failures, coupled with human error, can lead to large-scale disasters.

Let’s not forget the risks of natural disasters. The site is vulnerable to earthquakes and flooding capable of triggering a reactor accident. A 2013 seismic study of the area found that twelve major earthquake faults cross Hanford. The study revealed faults were longer than originally recorded. Longer faults usually generate larger magnitude earthquakes—with the potential to produce earthquakes greater than magnitude 7.

And then there’s the radioactive waste. Small modular nuclear reactors, just like nuclear reactors currently in operation, produce nuclear waste that stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. With no national geologic repository, the toxic and radioactive waste is stored on-site in dry casks licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Xe-100 reactor in particular produces large volumes of spent fuel—more than ten times that of light water reactors per unit of electricity generated—due to its unique fuel technology.

The Xe-100 and its unavoidable nuclear waste would increase the radioactive burden to the land and surrounding communities for generations. Hanford, home to the first plutonium-production facility in the world, now contains more than 500 contaminated facilities and structures. The legacy of Hanford’s radioactive waste caused extensive pollution and impacted the health of workers at Hanford and surrounding communities. Still today, the U.S. government is trying and, and in many instances failing, to prevent more radioactive releases into the soil and groundwater.

A False Solution to the Climate Crisis

Earlier this year, former heads of nuclear regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Europe sent shockwaves through the nuclear industry, putting out a statement opposing nuclear energy as a climate solution. Nuclear backers claim that a new generation of nuclear, including small modular nuclear reactors, will be clean, safe, smart and cheap. The assessment from nuclear regulators was “this is fiction.”

As the regulators explained, “The reality is nuclear is neither clean, safe or smart, but a very complex technology with the potential to cause significant harm.” The leading reasons nuclear energy cannot solve the climate crisis include:

  • High Costs: Nuclear energy is too costly in absolute terms to make a relevant contribution to global power production.
  • Lack of Competitiveness with Renewables: Nuclear energy is more expensive than renewable energy in terms of energy production and carbon dioxide mitigation, even taking into account costs of grid management tools like energy storage.
  • Inherent Safety Risks: Nuclear energy comes with unavoidable cascading accidents from human error, internal faults, and external impacts. This includes the unresolved technical and safety problems associated with so-called advanced and small modular nuclear reactors.
  • Too Risky for Financial Market Investment and Insurers: The nuclear industry is dependent on very large public subsidies and loan guarantees. In addition, nuclear energy is financially unsustainable. According to the former regulators, “no economic institution is prepared to insure against the full potential of cost, environmental and human impacts of accidental radiation release—with the majority of those very significant costs being borne by the public.”
  • Environmentally Unsustainable: The unsolved problem of very long-lived radioactive waste makes nuclear energy unsustainable.

Importantly, nuclear energy will not deliver necessary greenhouse gas cuts needed by the 2030s. Why? Nuclear energy’s impracticably lengthy development and construction timelines, coupled with the overwhelming construction costs of the number reactors required to make a dent in the climate crisis. In short, nuclear energy creates a new crisis, long-lived radioactive waste, without solving the climate crisis.

Your Actions Matter

Now, more than ever, we need your support to protect the Columbia from new nuclear development. Here are three actions you can take:

  1. Support Columbia Riverkeeper: Riverkeeper pairs in-depth technical research, legal advocacy, and grassroots organizing to protect the Columbia River from more nuclear-energy development. We work in solidarity with Tribal Nations advocating for Hanford cleanup. Donate to Riverkeeper to support our team of community organizers and attorneys.
  2. Sign the Petition: Our goal is for 5,000 people to sign petitions to elected officials and regulators opposing more nuclear energy at Hanford. Sign here.
  3. Get Ready to Speak Up: Follow Riverkeeper on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and subscribe to our email list for the latest public engagement opportunities on X-energy’s proposal. X-energy has yet to apply for licenses to site and operate the reactors.

The U.S. government once treated Hanford as a nuclear waste dumping ground. That era is over. The area’s immense importance to Tribes, surrounding and downstream communities, fish, animals, and plants means thorough cleanup at Hanford matters. New nuclear reactors have no place in Hanford’s vibrant future.

Columbia River Tribes on Hanford Cleanup, New Nuclear Energy

In 1855, the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, CTUIR, and the Nez Perce Tribe signed treaties ceding millions of acres of their lands to the United States in exchange for the preservation of important rights. The Hanford Nuclear Site is sited within the ceded territories of these Columbia River Tribal Nations. The Tribes approach Hanford cleanup through the frame of how Tribal people used and will use Hanford in the future: for hunting, fishing, gathering, sweat lodges, and other activities. These uses bring people in close contact with soils, water, air, plants, wildlife, and fish at Hanford.

On August 6, 2021, CTUIR wrote a letter to the U.S. Dept. of Energy opposing X-energy’s proposal. The letter states, “CTUIR does NOT support the deployment of Small Modular Reactors (SMR or SMNR) or any new/additive nuclear missions at the Hanford Site.” The letter details CTUIR’s Hanford Policy, which notes: “Hanford and Hanford-affected lands and resources should not be further developed and no new nuclear missions or expansion of nuclear energy, nor new or expanded nuclear fuel storage undertaken unless explicitly permitted by the CTUIR Board of Trustees through government to-government consultation.” CTUIR concludes that new nuclear reactors and their toxic, long-lived waste are an affront to CTUIR’s Treaty-honored rights.

Thank you to Riverkeeper’s 2021 Hanford Intern, Miya Burke, whose research and writing made this article possible.

Take Action: Hanford Small Nuclear Reactors

Tell Members of Congress and Governors Inslee and Brown: NO new nuclear energy development at the Hanford Nuclear Site.