Two Nevada towns among those betting on ‘new nuclear’

An artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant. (Photo courtesy of NuScale)

It’s a national nuclear energy saga set in city council meetings across the West, the Idaho National Laboratory and, among other places, in two Northern Nevada towns.

It’s been less than a month since the Wells Rural Electric Company joined the City of Fallon as the second Nevada entity in an effort to develop a new type of nuclear power plant in Idaho.

During that time, the Carbon Free Power Project, an effort of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS, has seen a handful of other municipalities back out of the nuclear project, including Bountiful, Utah, just this week. Last week, Idaho Falls also reduced by half its commitment to purchasing energy from the yet-to-be-built plant at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Energy has affirmed its $1.35 billion commitment to the effort, a partnership between UAMPS, the energy department and Portland-based nuclear technology company NuScale. The funds still must be congressionally appropriated annually. DOE funding for the project has already reached “about $280 million” since 2013, according to Reuters.

Both Democrats and Republicans at the highest levels have shown interest in backing energy projects such as this one, said LaVarr Webb, a spokesman for UAMPS.

“The DOE has indicated that this is a very important project for them,” he said. “We think that no matter who is elected (president) the project will still go forward.”

The NuScale nuclear project rose out of a desire to minimize the high costs, construction delays and safety concerns affiliated with traditional nuclear power plants by instead using 12 “small modular reactors” putting out up to 720 megawatts of energy when combined.

The modular reactors can be manufactured offsite and shipped for final construction of the plant. The design of the plant includes the capacity to safely shut down and “self-cool indefinitely with no operator action, no AC or DC power, and no additional water,” according to NuScale.

The plant’s details and designs, which allow it to “passively cool itself,” have been reviewed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The commission issued a final safety evaluation report in August and further action on certification is pending. The first unit on the Idaho plant is expected to be operational by 2029 after its scheduled operation was pushed back roughly two years, Webb said.

If the project is built, the energy produced would be sold to the municipalities that have joined the Carbon Free Power Project as well as to other utilities.

Webb explained that many cities are looking for ways to supplement their renewable energy sources like water and wind with a more consistent source over the coming decades. Nuclear power allows for a carbon-free alternative to sources like coal.

“We only would expect nuclear to be a small part of the portfolios of our members but it makes it so that they feel secure,” he said.

The new technology, adjusted deadlines, hefty federal and city investments, and the recent withdrawals from the UAMPS project have made it a prominent news item as well as a target for criticism.

The Utah Taxpayers Association doesn’t have a stance on nuclear energy, but it opposes the possible financial risks to municipalities involved in the project, said Vice President Rusty Cannon.

“We don’t think these municipal power companies should be acting as seed investors essentially,” he said.

Cannon said his organization, which has led opposition to the initiative in Utah, is concerned that the costs of a ballooning nuclear test run will be tossed onto the Utah cities investing in the project, or more broadly, onto taxpayers.

“We understand that these municipal power companies need to plan for baseload power in the long term,” he said. “We just feel like if this project is going to succeed, it should be funded by private money.”

The criticisms from the association’s webpage call on citizens to urge their elected officials to withdraw from the project, and Cannon said quite a few have. The association evokes a string of failed or heavily delayed nuclear power projects across the country.

Webb, however, argues those criticisms are not relevant to the new technology.

“It is totally disingenuous to compare the(Carbon Free Power Project)  to older models of nuclear plants. It is like comparing a 1960s Oldsmobile with big fins to a 2020 Tesla Model S,” UAMPS said in a statement in response to the association’s criticisms.

Costs paid by each municipality or entity in the project are based on the amount of energy to which each municipality has subscribed. Fallon and the co-op in Wells will likely have smaller costs than many other cities because of their small subscription amounts. Fallon has signed on for two megawatts of power while Wells has signed on for one.

Still, a “small amount” of commitment is relative.

The Carbon Free Power Project allows municipalities that have committed to the project to leave at any time, though there are costs associated with doing so. The withdrawal deadline before the next phase begins is set for Saturday.

If the Wells nonprofit were to exit the agreement, for instance, the cost might be “a couple hundred thousand,” said CEO Clay Fitch.

The Wells co-op currently buys most of its power from Bonneville Power Administration, a hydroelectric source.

The energy utility sees itself as part of the “northwest” geographically speaking, and so it made sense for the entity to join a project so close to home and that fits with its renewable energy goals, Fitch said.

“We’re trying to set a carbon-free standard,” he said. “We’re joining it for the clean aspect.”

Though the representatives of the co-op knew about the project for some time, they had questions about the planning. UAMPs offered answers and an economic test on the benefits that seemed favorable, he said, adding that Wells has not actually provided any funding yet.

As the project seeks more subscribers, Webb said UAMPS is hyperaware that failure of the project could have widespread repercussions.

“This does represent the next generation of nuclear,” Webb said. “Many, many people are watching it very carefully because if this project isn’t successful then it does set back new nuclear.”

Pashtana Usufzy
Pashtana Usufzy is a freelance general features and health reporter based in Las Vegas. She previously worked as a health care reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and prior to that as a local news reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.