SALT LAKE CITY — An Oregon-based company is in a global race to be the first to commercially deploy a small modular nuclear power reactor, and if successful, Utah residents served by municipal power systems would be among its first energy consumers.
NuScale's Carbon Free Power Project is scheduled to go online in 2026 at the Idaho National Laboratory a little over 200 miles north of Salt Lake City.
The 12-module reactor with the capacity to generate 720 megawatts of power will occupy a 34-acre site at the sprawling 890-square-mile U.S. Department of Energy facility.
Members of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which serves cities and special districts in six Western states, are inking power sales contracts to move the project forward. So far, 30 members have signed on, and three said no thanks.
"The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems wanted to have a carbon-free portfolio. We looked at big nuclear, but that was not something we wanted to do," said Doug Hunter, the group's general manager.
NuScale Power completed the design certification phase before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and additional licensing requirements will be finished in 2020.
This fall, the company picked BWXT Technologies to begin engineering work for the reactor, a significant milestone in the project's development.
The small modular reactor is not like the 99 operating reactors at 61 nuclear power plants across the United States.
NuScale's chief technology officer Jose Reyes writes that this is how they differ:
• Upon loss of all power, the NuScale nuclear reactors will shut down without operator or computer actions.
• It will remain cooled for an unlimited period of time.
• Cooling of spent fuel can be achieved for five months without adding water.
• Multiple modular reactors reduce the risk of a systemwide emergency shutdown.
• Components can be assembled off site in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module.
Another positive aspect is cost. According to Hunter, the price tag for the NuScale project is $4.2 billion, which also includes the costs of financing. Meanwhile, the costs of big traditional plants are escalating. The most recent U.S. plant, Vogtle in Georgia, cost $19 billion for the first two units and will be $25 billion for the additional units now under construction.
Proponents of the project say the beauty of the NuScale design is that the reactors can't melt down, can't be hacked and the plant does not have to be shut down to be refueled. The reactors are underground and submerged in an 80-foot pool.
"This design is very simple in terms of its contrast to the large reactors," Hunter said. "The simplicity in this thing made it pass the design certification process quickly, which for UAMPS, was reassuring."
In December 2017, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined NuScale did not need a redundant power source because of its self-cooling features.
"The plant was intentionally designed to be as simple and effective as it possibly could be," said George W. Griffith, the senior reactor physicist with Idaho National Laboratory. "That determined everything else going on down the line."
The World Nuclear Association notes that the passive safety features of these reactors and their smaller geographic footprint and buffer zone considerations could lead to locating them at retired coal plant sites.
Griffith did the site characterization work at INL for the future location of the nuclear reactor, examining 60 different characteristics before narrowing the choice to one.
The NRC, he added, will do its own evaluation of NuScale's project in each licensing phase.
"They don't care about economics or how easy it is to build, they just care about the safety."
But the project has some big bucks behind it, or as it critics say, taxpayer-funded subsidies being dumped into an "unproven" technology.
In the global race to be the first nation to deploy small module nuclear reactors, the U.S. Department of Energy selected NuScale for five-year competitive funding of up to $226 million, of which NuScale will match. The money is meant to accelerate the development of the project ahead of competitors like Russia or China.
A study released in September by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave a specific nod to NuScale and small modular reactors as a design ready for commercialization.
"The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World" notes the specific role of modular reactors to meet energy needs in both developed and developing countries, especially with global warming driving policy considerations and laws around fossil fuel consumption.
Hunter said with that pressure on to reduce emissions, member cities are looking to craft a clean energy portfolio that shifts away from traditional sources like coal.
The group is investing in "micro energy" projects such as wind, rooftop solar and distributed generation and believes nuclear power could provide base load generation.
"From a personal point of view — climate change, if it is anthropomorphic — it will have all the utilities regulated down the road, whether we like it or not," Hunter said.
"This is very complementary to renewables."
The project is not without its chorus of critics, including organizations like HEAL Utah, radioactive waste watchdog groups and people who hear "nuclear" and think of Three Mile Island or more recently, the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.
Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah, visited with leaders from multiple Utah cities that are part of the NuScale project to persuade them there are other options.
"We don't believe nuclear power is a necessary part of their portfolio from a reliability standpoint or from a diversification standpoint," he said.
Williams said he believes UAMPS is using outdated assumptions about the need to include base load generation from nuclear power and generate 40 to 80 year's worth of nuclear waste in order to assure system reliability.
UAMPS members, he added, will be able achieve the same reliability at lower rates within 10 to 20 years with innovations in energy efficiency, grid integration and energy storage technology. In the meantime, Williams said, they can use existing natural gas peaking plants as a bridge technology, which while carbon-based is still much less intensive than coal.
HEAL Utah plans to hire a company that will model power portfolio options for potential customers of the NuScale nuclear power, looking specifically at system reliability and rates.
"That is their focus, reliability and rates. Our motivation is the waste," he said.
Williams said that as an environmental advocacy organization, HEAL Utah is opposed to the generation of any more high level nuclear waste.
"When we talk to communities, we tell them we don't like the idea of this waste being generated when there is already nuclear waste sitting around the country and is there is no national solution to its storage."
Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the planned depository for the storage of high level nuclear waste, but President Obama scuttled the project by yanking the funding after two decades of research.
The decision stranded 81,000 metric tons of nuclear waste stored at 61 current and former nuclear reactor sites across the country and dealt the nuclear power industry a signficant setback.
Beatrice Brailsford, nuclear program director for the Snake River Alliance, said the cleanup at Idaho National Laboratory will take decades as it is.
"Now is not the time to be adding more nuclear waste," she said.
At the NuScale project, 4 acres of land on the 35-acre site in Idaho are designated as storage for the spent nuclear fuel, which actually is a solid.
Once nuclear fuel goes through a reactor once, it is termed "spent," even though there is a significant amount of energy that remains.
The used fuel, which is highly radioactive, is shielded and cooled in water.
The NRC requires five years of "wet fuel" storage, but Hunter said the NuScale plant will have the capability to store the material twice that long.
After it reaches a certain radioactive temperature, the pellets are put in dry cask storage in steel cylinders.
Hunter said the site can store 60 years of waste, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy.
"This is the only cycle of power production that I know of where we keep track of every single molecule in the waste stream," Hunter said. "It is highly regulated."
Williams counters: "They make it sound like it is a very minimal footprint at the Idaho site, but it is the most poisonous stuff there is."
While the permanent solution to the storage issue still awaits, Hunter said the nuclear industry and regulators have a long track record of safely handling nuclear waste.
“Spent fuel has been safely stored for many decades at hundreds of locations," he said. "The industry has the technology and experience to safely handle it. In the 65 years of nuclear power production in the United States and globally, there has never been a serious accident involving spent fuel.”
The municipal energy group is pursuing the acquisition of water for the project and at this stage, existing transmission infrastructure is sufficient to convey the energy, Hunter said.
During this $6 million study phase, the U.S. Department of Energy is picking up half the cost, while Hunter's group puts in $1.5 million, as well as NuScale's $1.5 million.
Hunter said the group can back out at any time prior to construction if the costs and projected rates aren't palatable to members.
Williams said he is skeptical those costs will ever be low enough, while Hunter said he believes the project could stabilize rates for participants for up to 40 years.
As the project moves forward, Hunter and his colleagues have been meeting with community members both in Idaho and Utah to answer questions and address concerns.
"The critics — I am not going to criticize them for their fear," he said. "We are really trying to engage with folks, and be open. This is a community decision. If the community doesn't want to do it, we are not going to make them do it. My job is to implement their decisions."