The debate over nuclear power has ramped up recently in Utah, with a number of the state’s municipal power agencies wrestling with continued participation in an experimental nuclear project in Idaho, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems/NuScale project.

Much has already been written about the project itself.  Though proponents tout benefits of cost and reliability, two municipalities so far, Logan and Lehi, have recently opted out of further participation, citing mainly financial concerns over an experimental design with delays and cost overruns mounting rapidly. Still, this extremely expensive energy might be worth it ― if the environmental benefits, particularly for climate change, were significant.

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Climate change is regarded within the full scientific community as a bona fide civilizational emergency ― that is, a situation requiring immediate, meaningful response to avoid catastrophic outcomes.  For the climate emergency, meaningful response means cutting global carbon emissions at least in half in the next decade, and eliminating them entirely in the next two to three decades.  

Electricity generation, as roughly a third of the current carbon emissions, is a large piece of the equation ― and it is on this point that nuclear power has been worth considering. Indeed, the project’s developers, having christened the endeavor the “Carbon Free Power Project,” are emphasizing the climate angle. And if the question were about building new nuclear generation versus new fossil (coal or natural gas) generation, they would have a point; the clear winner with respect to climate would be nuclear.

But this isn’t the question. In rapidly decarbonizing the electrical grid, the name of the game is replacing existing high-carbon (coal and gas) with new low-carbon, as quickly as possible. In this game, it’s essential to distinguish between existing nuclear, which is already installed and running, and proposed new nuclear, which is yet to be built. 

Existing nuclear makes sense at the moment. The investments have already been made and are producing low-carbon energy right now, today. From a climate or carbon standpoint, these plants should continue to generate until all existing fossil generation can be shuttered.

But proposed new nuclear makes no sense ― because it isn’t competing with fossils.  Instead, new nuclear is competing with low-carbon renewables, chiefly solar and wind.  And it simply can’t compete.

Investing in new nuclear projects to combat climate change is akin to the crew of the Titanic devoting time to building a whole new ocean liner instead of putting all their effort into loading the lifeboats; it steals time and resources from a much better alternative. Any money spent on new nuclear could buy us four to six times more wind and solar energy, available in months instead of a decade. And, remember, the next 10 years are critical.  

Faced with this reality, UAMPS/NuScale proponents have said they want a mostly renewable grid, but supplemented by just a bit of nuclear for “baseload” ― and that this is necessary. 

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The refrain of 20th century-era power managers is that renewables like wind and solar aren’t reliable (“The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine … ”) and so constantly humming “baseload” is necessary for reliability. It sounds reasonable, but like most bumper-sticker wisdom, doesn’t hold up. In fact, it is objectively, demonstrably wrong.  

The technologies of energy storage (utility-scale battery systems, for example) and demand management (when the energy is used) have transformed the landscape. Traditional “baseload” is no longer a necessary grid attribute. Anyone who says it is simply isn’t keeping up.

In Australia, for example, a 100-megawatt utility-scale battery system (about 1.5 times bigger than one of NuScale’s nuclear modules) is already proving more reliable and 90% cheaper than the “baseload” natural gas system it’s replacing.

The energy landscape ahead will be challenging. Existing nuclear plants should continue to operate while fossil fuel generation comes offline. But new nuclear makes no sense whatsoever ― financially, or far more importantly, for addressing climate change.  

The UAMPS/NuScale project is a poor choice for the planet, for our nation and for Utah’s independent municipal power companies. A bright future is possible if we’re smart and focused; the nuclear power trap is a distraction we can’t afford.

Robert Davies is an associate professor of professional practice in Utah State University’s department of physics. His work focuses on global change, human sustainability and critical science communication.