There might not be a worse time to run out of power. 

The American southwest has been drowning in extreme heat for weeks. On Tuesday, Phoenix hit 110 degrees for the 19th consecutive day, breaking a 50-year-old record

St. George is also facing city-wide heat exhaustion, reaching triple digit temperatures every day this month except one, and expecting high temperatures of 110 degrees or more for four days out of the next seven. 

And the toll on the energy grid is starting to show. 

St. George residents were asked Monday and again on Tuesday to limit their energy-use after some sectors of the city experienced power outages on Sunday afternoon caused by an overburdened power grid. 

To avoid a blackout during a heatwave — what some scholars have called “the most threatening climate event we can imagine” — requires reliable and plentiful energy. 

Look no further than nuclear power, particularly small modular reactors, says Rep. John Curtis of Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes south Salt Lake County, Provo and red-hot Moab. 

“Increased nuclear power generation can give Utahns the assurance that the lights will stay on during extreme weather events through the baseload power it can provide,” Curtis told the Deseret News.

Curtis discussed the importance of nuclear power and his bill that would incentivize innovation in the industry, including making it easier for the technology to expand in Utah, at a hearing on Tuesday for the House Subcommittee On Energy, Climate and Grid Security which he vice chairs. 

What did Curtis say about nuclear power?

During the hearing, Curtis said there are obstacles — like regulations and high costs — that keep nuclear power from becoming more commonplace. 

Curtis referred to the efforts of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to license 12 small modular reactors from Nuscale Power Corp to provide energy to several Utah municipalities and some neighboring states. After 10 years and $100 million, the licensing process is only halfway done, Curtis said. 

“This is clearly not acceptable if we’re going to make nuclear a major part of what we’re doing,” he said. 

To address the difficulty in obtaining permits and funds for a new generation of smaller, safer nuclear reactors, Curtis is working on a bill that would authorize the Secretary of Energy to award grants to cover regulatory costs for non-federal entities that are engaged in licensing “first-of-a-kind advanced nuclear reactors.”

The Advanced Nuclear Reactor Prize Act was introduced in February of last year but was not brought up for a vote. Curtis is hoping with increased education and awareness Congress will take steps towards making this technology a key part of the “affordable, reliable, clean energy” transition.

“In Congress, I am proud to support efforts that remove red tape around permitting (small nuclear reactors) and look forward to seeing these talks progress,” Curtis said. 

What are the arguments for and against nuclear power?

But nuclear power is still controversial, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue. 

Opponents argue that nuclear power plants produce dangerous waste with no good long-term storage solutions, rely on continuous uranium mining and increase risk for environmental catastrophes and radiation-related deaths, like what happened in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.

Advocates, like Curtis, on the other hand, counter that nuclear power plants represent one of the cleanest sources of energy, produce energy far more consistently than other renewables and are safer than other energy sources. 

“Despite its reputation, this is actually very safe,” Curtis said at the hearing. “The big incidents we all hear about, but we forget how many lives have been lost in other forms of energy.”

However, the Mountain West has had its fair share of negative exposure to nuclear power and the uranium that powers it. 

For a time following the Second World War, Moab, Utah, was the uranium capital of the world. While the mining industry is now largely defunct, the mines left their mark on employees and local rivers, which continue to feel the effects of radiation and abandoned uranium waste material. Curtis’s 3rd district is home to the country’s sole uranium processing plant and could soon be home to a second plant near Green River, Utah. 

Utahns also suffered increased incidents of cancer caused by fallout from atomic bomb testing in Nevada during the Cold War.  

While concerns about the safety of nuclear power are understandable, Curtis says that most of these worries have been resolved by technological advances and that any remaining points of concern will likely be cleared up in the future. 

“It’s fair to have questions about nuclear,” Curtis said. “I personally believe there’s not a single one of these obstacles that the industry can’t overcome.

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When will there be nuclear power plants in Utah?

The localities in Utah and neighboring states that makeup the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems approved the continuation of NuScale’s plans to build a small modular reactor plant at the Idaho National Laboratory in March, despite a significant increase in projected energy costs and a delay in when the reactor could start producing power to 2030. 

In April, Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo was one of the original cosponsors of a similar bill to the one sponsored by Curtis. The Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act of 2023 also seeks to increase investment in new nuclear power plant projects by awarding monetary prizes to developers of new nuclear reactor technology and reducing regulatory costs for companies trying to obtain a license for the same. 

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll conducted earlier this month, found that a majority of Utah residents are on board with a nuclear power plant in Utah, with 65% saying they are in favor of the idea, compared to 31% who are opposed, and another 4% who have yet to make up their mind.

The concern seemed to be limited mostly to older Utahns. The poll results showed universal support for a nuclear plant among those 18 to 24, with 0% opposed. 

For Curtis, the biggest question left unanswered is why it has taken so long for nuclear power to gain traction. 

“I regret that it seems like we’ve taken almost a couple decades out of innovation on this,” he said. “I have no doubt, had we had our head in the game for a long time, all of these things would be resolved.”

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