Last October, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a high-ranking U.S. official toured a research facility in Everett and delivered a line to reporters straight out of a bygone era of belligerence. “We are in a worldwide nuclear competition.”
Okay, Jennifer Granholm didn’t mean it that way. The Secretary of Energy hadn’t descended on this Washington to escalate tensions with a foreign adversary. Instead, she’d arrived here, donning a shiny blue safety helmet and protective glasses, to boost an unlikely energy source for addressing the universal threat of climate change.
Even as workers clean up a toxic mess in Hanford, commercial operators mothball old nuclear sites, and the specter of nuclear war looms over us all, a faction of scientists and entrepreneurs have decided we’ll need to pursue the nuclear option—energy, that is—to decarbonize the electric grid and avoid an apocalyptic future.
In 2020, the Department of Energy awarded Bellevue-based TerraPower $80 million (and as much as $2 billion total over several years) to build a new-age nuclear power plant in Wyoming. Last year, the company, owners of that Everett research site, also closed an $830 million fundraising round—one of the largest in Seattle tech history, GeekWire reported. Investors, like government bigwigs, are betting that its atomic tech can help save the planet.
This loaded pitch has riled some prominent climate organizations, who view it as paradoxical. How can we rescue the earth with technology that, in the wrong hands, could hasten its destruction?
Proponents, meanwhile, say that regulation and automation reduce the chances of human error today. And, indirectly, that we’re pretty desperate. Harnessing popular renewables like solar and wind simply won’t be enough to reach net-zero carbon emissions. The wind doesn’t always gust, the sun doesn’t always come out. A carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, petroleum—must compensate for fickle weather if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming, these advocates will tell you.
Bill Gates is one of them. He founded TerraPower in 2006, a pet project fueled by an interest in global energy poverty. “The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases,” he writes in his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
Nuclear energy, he determined, is the only “carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, almost anywhere on earth, that has been proven to work on a large scale.” In 2021, about 20 percent of U.S. electricity came from nuclear, the rough equivalent of all renewables combined. Building more plants could help chip away at that other 60 percent quicker, Gates figures.
For years, TerraPower deployed its own supercomputers to model what a next-generation nuclear power plant might look like. In 2020, the company started testing reactors and conducting other experiments at a 65,000-square-foot research hub in Everett, near Paine Field and Boeing.
The day after Granholm’s visit to that closely monitored site, the inaugural Breakthrough Energy Summit kicked off on the Seattle waterfront. With the haze of wildfire smoke lingering outside, hundreds of scientists, business leaders, and politicians gathered at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center to discuss the future of climate innovations—wonky things like wave power and biomining. Gates, who started the umbrella organization Breakthrough Energy to back such projects in 2015, spoke at the event. John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, dropped in too.
Granholm showed up to stress the importance of federal spending on clean energy—programs that could yield grants like the ones TerraPower and another company with Washington ties received. Maryland-based X-energy will use its $80 million to help construct reactors at the Hanford site in the southeastern corner of the state where the country once produced plutonium for an atomic bomb.
The projects make Washington, long a darling of clean energy evangelists for its crush of hydropower, a national hub for advanced nuclear technology once again.
Everyone hopes it’s not as messy, or as costly, as the last time.
What many call the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere lies just off a sinuous stretch of a picturesque river. Next to the Columbia in southeastern Washington, beneath acres of sagebrush and sand, 177 underground tanks contain 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge and chemical waste. These hidden “farms” of containers hold the contaminated remains of the Hanford Site.
In 1943, tens of thousands of workers arrived in a dusty corner of the state to lend their hands to the secretive Manhattan Project. Handpicked for its proximity to a voluminous water source (and its distance from nearly everything else), the area was at the core of the country’s nuclear experiment. It ultimately produced the plutonium in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 that immediately killed upwards of 40,000 people (and many more in the years to come) and ended World War II.
Over the next four decades, the country built more reactors at the Hanford Site as the Cold War heated up. But one big problem underlaid its burgeoning plutonium operation: It created tons of liquid and solid waste, some of which would be toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. When the plant finally shut down in 1987, there wasn’t a good plan for how to clean it up.
Some would say there still isn’t. Nearly 35 years since signing the Tri-Party Agreement to clean up the facility, government agencies, including the Department of Energy, are still wrestling with costs that only keep growing (the latest estimate: $320 to $660 billion). And its human toll is already well-documented. Beyond the aforementioned war casualties, lawsuits on behalf of past and present workers at the site claim side effects ranging from nosebleeds to thyroid cancer. Some of these health hazards are still active; as of this writing, two tanks are leaking, and 60 square miles of groundwater is contaminated. As former Seattle Weekly contributor Joshua Frank puts it in his book, Atomic Days, Hanford is still a “ticking time bomb.”
The next nuclear power plant in Washington won’t be another Hanford. A site designed for building a nuclear weapon seemingly overnight and a plant equipped with modern nuclear technology today possess much different levels of risk, says Jeff Navin, TerraPower’s director of external affairs. And a reactor, to be clear, isn’t a bomb. “You don’t have to have a fear that something’s gonna go wrong, and there’s going to be a giant mushroom cloud that you would associate with a weapon.”
A slightly better proxy is the Columbia Generating Station, which has uneventfully pumped out energy for decades. Unlike this and other traditional plants, however, TerraPower’s planned site in Wyoming will use liquid metal sodium to cool rods instead of water and will store energy to support the state’s wind power. Fellow grantee X-energy claims its project at the Hanford site, which will use “indestructible” uranium pebbles, will be meltdown-proof.
Still, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Climate 350 Seattle make something of a slippery slope argument against advancing this energy source. Beyond the harm that waste from nuclear sites can cause, do we really want to proliferate the use of such a dangerous, and targeted, technology?
KC Golden, a longtime clean energy and climate policy advocate, subscribes to this idea. While he appreciates new research and development into working toward net-zero carbon emissions, nuclear still has a long way to go, in his view, until it’s cost-effective. He’d rather see the country invest in existing, cheaper forms of clean energy. “Color me open but skeptical,” Golden says.
To be clear, no one’s saying it’s time to peel panels off roofs or take down turbines in the desert. TerraPower and X-energy’s plants won’t open until the end of the decade, at the earliest. Before then, they’ll have to clear a gauntlet of regulatory hurdles. Navin stresses, for instance, TerraPower doesn’t touch anything radioactive without it being licensed and approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
So this nuclear competition will be more of a marathon than a sprint. Whether we can afford it, in this climate, is impossible to forecast.