SALT LAKE CITY — Nuclear power providing energy for some cities in Utah and five other states in the West is inching closer to reality after federal regulators endorsed the design of a planned small modular reactor plant at Idaho National Laboratory.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued what is called a “Final Safety Evaluation Report,” which means the technical review of the NuScale Power plant design is complete, and potential customers can now move ahead with the development of plants knowing that the safety aspects have been approved.
“This is a significant milestone not only for NuScale, but also for the entire U.S. nuclear sector and the other advanced nuclear technologies that will follow. This clearly establishes the leadership of NuScale and the U.S. in the race to bring (this technology) to market,” said John Hopkins, NuScale’s chairman and CEO.
The NuScale plant in Idaho — a small modular reactor — is nothing near the visual images people have with nuclear power plants that first came online in the United States in 1969. Even the latest nuclear power reactor to power up in Tennessee in 2016 is starkly different, which is one of two units that occupy 1,600 acres.
Proponents of the Idaho 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.
The NuScale plant is a project being pursued by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which represents municipal and special district power providers in Utah and five other states in the West that are not tied in with Rocky Mountain Power or its parent, PacifiCorp.
Such Utah municipalities include Bountiful, St. George, Murray, Brigham City, Kaysville, Payson, Hurricane, Price and several others.
More than 30 of those members are boards with financial investments in nuclear power as a way to diversify their energy portfolio, branching out from not only intermittent wind and solar but including a base power source such as nuclear energy as coal plants are retired.
The Carbon Free Power Project has also drawn heavy investments from the U.S. Department of Energy as the nation strives to be the first globally to deploy the modular nuclear technology.
“NuScale was the first company to enter the U.S. small modular reactor market and pioneered a refreshed regulatory approach for innovative reactor designs,” said Mark Peters, director of the Idaho National Laboratory. “This marks a milestone achievement for NuScale and contributes to a diversity of fission reactor designs, which, over time, will speed reactor technology adoption.”
The 12-module reactor planned for Idaho has the capacity to generate 720 megawatts of power and will occupy a 34-acre site at the sprawling 890-square-mile U.S. Department of Energy facility.
The company’s application to federal regulators was completed in 2016 and accepted the following year. The review process cost NuScale and its partner, Fluor, $500 million and more than 2 million hours of labor.
According to the company, it submitted 14 separate topical reports in addition to the over 12,000 pages for its design certification application and provided more than 2 million pages of supporting information for federal audits.
The project is not without its opponents or controversy.
In August, the Utah Taxpayers Association urged cities to withdraw their financial commitments due to risks and the potential impacts to taxpayers who would be roped into a technology it says has not been proven.
Some cities, like Logan, did bow out, saying it wanted to take a wait and see approach.
The first reactor would come online by 2029 if other federal regulatory requirements are met.