SPOKANE — The federal government has chosen the operator of a nuclear power plant near Richland to help develop the next generation of nuclear energy facilities, raising the possibility of a new reactor in central Washington.

The U.S. Department of Energy this week announced that Energy Northwest, which operates the only nuclear power plant in the Northwest, will be part of a team developing the next generation of nuclear energy plants.

The announcement prompted Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents the area in Congress, to applaud the recipients of Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program funds.

“The selection of these projects is an absolute game-changer for our state and makes it official: Tri-Cities, Wash., is a global leader in nuclear energy innovation,” Newhouse said.

However, a spokesman for Energy Northwest warned that the decision on where to build new commercial nuclear power plants is years away.

“There are no plans currently to site anything,” Jason Herbert said, while adding that land owned by Energy Northwest in the Tri-Cities area includes “potential sites” for a new reactor.

Energy Northwest operates the Columbia Generating Station, which was completed in 1984 and is the last remaining nuclear power plant in the Northwest.

The Department of Energy this week announced that Energy Northwest would partner with X-energy and TerraPower-GE Hitachi in developing new reactor technology.

The Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program is designed to help private industry demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors in the United States, using $230 million appropriated by Congress.

If built in Washington, Energy Northwest would expect to own and operate the new nuclear plant, the company said.

The Northwest is expected to face significant electricity shortfalls over the next decade, Energy Northwest said.

“Identifying advanced reactor designs will allow us to continue serving the Northwest with reliable, affordable, and clean electricity as we have been doing for nearly 60 years,” said Brad Sawatzke, chief executive officer of Energy Northwest.

Energy Northwest is an independent joint operating agency of Washington state, and comprises 27 public power member utilities serving more than 1.5 million customers.

The Tri-Cities region, which includes Richland, has a long history in the nuclear industry, dating back to its selection by the Manhattan Project in World War II as a site to help develop the atomic bomb.

Recommended for you