Energy Northwest and X-energy will support the development of an 80-MW advanced nuclear reactor on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington, with the aim of bringing it on line by 2027, under a memorandum of understanding signed April 1.
Working through their "TRi Energy Partnership" MOU, Grant County Public Utility District will be the offtaker for electricity from X-energy's Xe-100 plant, which would be licensed and operated by Energy Northwest. The plant would be built on the site of Energy Northwest's WNP 1 reactor project, which was never finished after work started on it in 1975.
Energy Northwest, a joint operating agency, operates the Northwest's only commercial nuclear power reactor, the 1,207-MW Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington. Grant PUD is a member utility of Energy Northwest.
Energy Northwest spokeswoman Kelly Rae told California Energy Markets that the WNP 1 site, which was licensed for the earlier project, will be helpful for the new project because it "has been previously analyzed to support nuclear energy through various site characterization and environmental reviews."
Grant PUD spokesman Chuck Allen told CEM that the PUD's 2020 integrated resource plan projects that load will grow annually by about 4.9 percent through 2030, which implies a capacity deficit starting in 2026 during peak periods of late summer and winter.
Grant's interest in SMR technology stems from the PUD commissioners' directive to "explore options to increase generating resources when our retail load outgrows the capacity of the [956-MW] Priest Rapids hydro project," Allen said.
"One of the most significant discoveries during the initial planning phase of the TRi Energy Partnership will be the financial viability of the project," Allen said. "At this time, we believe this partnership could provide a very promising resource for our utility given Washington's goals through the Clean Energy Transformation Act."
Maryland-based X-energy was awarded $80 million in 2020 from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) for initial cost-shared funding for the project.
The company was established in 2009, funded mostly by founder and Board Chair Kam Ghaffarian, who is still its main investor.
The Xe-100 small modular reactor uses high-temperature helium gas to provide cooling and heat transfer, and can be combined with up to three other modules for total net generation of 320 MW.
The modules are designed to continuously refuel, so they can operate for long periods before needing maintenance that would typically be performed during refueling outages. The major components will be factory-fabricated, which the company says promises faster, lower-cost construction.
Darren Gale, X-energy's ARDP program manager, told CEM the company expects to submit an application for the Xe-100 plant to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the second quarter of 2022.
X-energy is currently in the pre-application phase, but has been submitting topical reports about new aspects of the plant's design to help the NRC familiarize itself with it.
In particular, Gale said, the design uses a new fuel-optimization approach, so the topical reports on this will educate the NRC staff in advance of the application.
"That will be a big part of reduction in the timeline as we ramp up, preparing to submit our application," he said.
Gale said the exact schedule will depend in part on the needs of Grant PUD, which he said is the power customer and will provide capital for the project.
"It also helps having Grant as the sole customer," Gale said, which simplifies business decisions.
This is in contrast to NuScale's SMR project, which involves nearly two dozen of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems' 47 member utilities as customers, and has taken an extended period of time achieving buy-in from them.
Also, it will have taken NuScale six years to get its SMR design certified by the time the NRC issues its final rulemaking, which is currently slated for March 2022. NuScale and UAMPS expect to apply for a combined operating and construction license by mid-to-late 2023, and for NRC review of that to finish by late 2025 or early 2026, allowing construction to begin.
X-energy's SMR will use DOE-supported high-temperature gas technologies and tristructural isotropic particle fuel. In addition to plant licensing, the project includes licensing and construction of the company's TRISO fuel fabrication facility, to be located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Gale told CEM the company expects to submit an application to the NRC in the third quarter of 2021 to license the fabrication facility. He said it already has an operational pilot facility at Oak Ridge that will guide buildout for the larger operation.
"We're not starting from scratch," Gale said. "We've had a contract with DOE since 2016 involving this, and the pilot facility at Oak Ridge uses commercial-scale equipment."
A 2018 grant from DOE will be used to focus on the commercial-scale design of the fabrication plant, he added, and once the application for it is submitted, the company can start using a portion of the $80-million grant awarded in 2020 to finish that work.
The fuel "pebbles" that will be fabricated at the plant are about the size of billiard balls and will be packed with TRISO particles, which are about as big as poppy seeds and made from a mixture of low-enriched uranium and oxygen surrounded by three alternating layers of graphite and silicon carbide.
DOE says TRISO's layered shell can protect the uranium inside "from melting under even the most extreme conditions that could occur in a reactor."
Regarding obtaining the helium needed for cooling and heat transport, "We are currently working with helium suppliers and believe we will have adequate supply," X-energy spokeswoman Carol Lane told CEM in an email.
In addition to its deal with X-energy, Energy Northwest also formed an alliance with TerraPower on its 345-MW sodium-cooled fast "Natrium" reactor with molten-salt heat storage. TerraPower was also awarded an $80 million ARDP in October.
"Energy Northwest has a strong relationship with TerraPower and we continue to work together," Rae told CEM, adding that the company is currently identifying the best site for its project.