Northern Utah city opts out of planned nuclear power project over money concerns
Cities eyeing NuScale’s Small Modular Reactor project as way to diversify as coal generators close
SALT LAKE CITY — Cost concerns over Logan’s participation in a next-generation nuclear power plant planned at Idaho National Laboratory led the city to withdraw from the project, and Lehi is considering a similar move in its council meeting Tuesday.
“My concerns were many and varied,” Logan Finance Director Richard Anderson said of last week’s decision.
“First of all I think the project is interesting and intriguing and something that I think is important. I would love to see nuclear power because it is cleaner and is a base load power source. I would love to see it succeed,” Anderson said.
Still, changes in funding by the U.S. Department of Energy for the Carbon Free Power Project caused Anderson concern, as it did for Mark Montgomery, the city’s light and power director, and prompted both of them to recommend Logan withdraw its participation.
“We don’t have the experience to be swimming in these waters. I didn’t feel good about it,” Anderson said.
The city, as a member of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, invested $400,000 and was due to commit another $654,000 by Sept. 14 or vote to bow out altogether.
Cities and special service districts that have their own municipal power systems in Utah and surrounding states have been eyeing NuScale’s Small Modular Reactor project as a way to diversify their energy portfolios, especially as aging coal plants are retired.
The plant’s unique design features 12 distinct modules, with the first scheduled to come online in 2029 with the 11 others following the next year. It is currently undergoing licensing review at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and while there is a global race to be the first to successfully deploy this technology, NuScale is ahead of its competitors.
The project is backed heavily by the U.S. Department of Energy, which gave NuScale a competitive award of $226 million in 2013 to develop the technology. Two years later, the federal agency gave NuScale $16.7 million for licensing preparation.
Ultimately, the energy department committed to spend $1.4 billion on the project with an eye toward reducing carbon emissions, combating climate change and to position the country as a world leader in nuclear technology.
But critics say the proposed 720-megawatt plant is too risky and ratepayers — hence taxpayers — should not be footing the cost for technology they say is yet to be proven.
LaVarr Webb, spokesman for the municipal power association, said the investment schedule was specifically designed with these exit opportunities if cities or special districts become nervous.
The project, he added, will not proceed if costs prove too high.
The project has also come under criticism for what some say is a lack of transparency.
Earlier this month, the Utah Taxpayers Association urged cities to withdraw ahead of the deadline and complained about meetings in which groups were turned away unless they were project participants.
Rusty Cannon, vice president of Utah Taxpayers Association, said because the municipal power association is exempt from Utah’s open meeting laws, it can close its doors to others.
“We asked to observe a recent meeting and were denied access. That is the same response many others have also received,” Cannon said.
While association leaders have spent hours on video calls with the association and others, Cannon said that format does not provide the same answers.
Webb said meetings in which non-project participants were turned away, with perhaps the exception of one, are in line with why other governmental entities can close meetings under Utah law, such as contractual issues, litigation or personnel issues.
On Tuesday in Lehi, the City Council will consider a resolution outlining the city’s withdrawal from the project.