The professionals who operate our electric grid will remind us it is a system that must be kept in balance at all times, constantly matching electricity generation with demand. Because of that necessity, achieving both a cleaner and an affordable energy future is going to require a mix of zero-emissions electricity resources. Solar and wind power will play important roles, but because they don’t produce electricity around the clock they need to be complemented by clean resources that can provide the necessary balance. That’s where nuclear energy comes in.
Today, nuclear energy generates about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, and more than half of the nation’s carbon-free power. In fact, we get about two-and-a-half times more electricity from nuclear energy than we do from wind and solar power combined. But we haven’t been building many new nuclear power plants in recent years due to several factors, including relatively flat electricity demand, the high cost and long construction timelines for large nuclear plant designs, and the increasing availability of low-price natural gas.
Innovators in the nuclear field know we can get to a cleaner energy future a lot faster if we start building more nuclear plants, both in the U.S. and around the world. So they have been working on smaller plant designs that can cost less and take less time to build. The new plant design that is furthest along is the NuScale small modular reactor, or SMR, that was pioneered by a researcher at Oregon State University with help from my former colleagues at the Idaho National Laboratory. The NuScale design takes the best from reactor designs that have been proven over the past 50 years and adds in new safety and reliability features to create a potentially game-changing new design.
The Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS, is considering construction of a NuScale SMR on the Idaho National Laboratory site, about three hours north of Salt Lake City, not too far from my former home in Idaho Falls. UAMPS is an organization where communities come together to cooperatively meet their energy needs; while most of the 40-plus UAMPS members are from Utah, others come from California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. The clean electricity from the SMR would replace some of the coal-fired electricity currently generated at plants scheduled to be retired in the next several years.
UAMPS leaders are leveraging the pioneering nature of the project to their advantage, securing the same types of incentives and risk-reduction that have allowed wind and solar energy to expand dramatically. For example, the SMR project is qualified to receive federal production tax credits modeled after those given to wind energy for nearly 25 years. The project is also eligible for a federal loan guarantee, which will reduce borrowing costs. The state of Idaho has passed tax incentives to help spur construction of the project. And finally, during my time running the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, we signed an agreement granting UAMPS a permit to use federal land on the Idaho site, a site where 52 nuclear reactors have been built over the decades and four are still in operation.
Add to all of this the strong public and political support of the communities around the region and the determination of both the Trump administration and Congress to see the SMR project through, and you’ve got a recipe for a cleaner energy future for communities across Utah and beyond.