This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing effort to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
After seven years, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is still pursuing a series of small nuclear reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory as their clean energy solution.
And, after seven years, they still need more company.
UAMPS, which has 50 members who coordinate for the purchase and delivery of electricity, will soon upgrade the 27 entities that have joined the “Carbon-Free Power Project” and the price is going up.
The CFPP, a partnership between UAMPS and NuScale Power, an Oregon company that develops small nuclear reactors, had given members an earlier estimate of about $58 per megawatt-hour for project energy, which was well above what they are currently paying horsepower. And now it looks closer to being between $80 and $100 per megawatt-hour when it comes online in 2029.
Meanwhile, UAMPS members who have committed to the project will only occupy about a quarter of the CFPP’s planned 462-megawatt capacity. UAMPS’ new CEO, Mason Baker, acknowledges that’s not enough.
“We will need to see a measured improvement over the current subscription to continue moving forward with the project,” Baker said. “We’re doing it very actively.”
Baker said they are looking for partners both inside and outside of UAMPS. There were initially 36 members interested, but cost and risk concerns were enough for Logan, Bountiful et al to withdraw in 2020.
“I honestly don’t think there is anything more important than nuclear power,” said Dennis Bott, mayor of Brigham City, who has stuck with the plan.
With climate-destroying coal-fired plants scheduled for closure and large-scale battery buildup just starting to emerge, he thinks nuclear is the best alternative for ‘baseload’ energy, demand of steady state required when renewables do not produce enough. And he thinks nuclear will be cost-competitive with natural gas when the project comes online.
Bott believes the nuclear price will be stable and more predictable than natural gas prices by the end of the decade. “AND [natural gas] it still has a carbon footprint. I think it is false to look at a 2022 gas price model.”
Mark Montgomery, executive director of Logan City Light and Power, said his city opted out of CFPP primarily because it didn’t want to take the risk of building “first-of-its-kind” technology, but acknowledges underlying energy demand is a growing problem in the West. “As coal-fired plants retire and energy demand grows, we find ourselves in a difficult situation.”
He said the nuclear project is still intriguing because of that request, but he doesn’t see Logan coming back at this point. “Our current mayor is very conservative and risk averse.”
St. George, the largest energy system member in UAMPS, has never joined the project, but it’s not because of opposition to nuclear power, said Laurie Mangum, director of energy services for St. George City.
“I think the technology is great,” Mangum said. “I have no doubts about it. I just have reservations that St. George is involved in ownership of the project.
He said St. George’s situation is different from most UAMPS members because the city has relatively mild winters and abundant sunshine for solar energy in the summer.
However, he shares the concerns of others about baseload energy and does not rule out buying nuclear power from the CFPP at a later date if the price is within reach.
Both Mangum and Bott said they would like to see more financial participation from the federal government to reduce risk. The Department of Energy has committed $1.4 billion to the project. “I’d like to see them double or triple that,” Bott said.
UAMPS spokesman LaVarr Webb said the completion of the latest cost estimates would trigger an “off-ramp” opportunity for the 27 participants. And if the price estimate goes beyond a certain level, UAMPS will have the option to withdraw recovering most of the costs. If they proceed, UAMPS will issue bonds to pay for the project, and those cities’ taxpayers will repay the bonds through monthly utility bills.
Webb called it “highly unlikely” that UAMPS will finish the project because other power options are also getting more expensive.
For Baker, nuclear is the only viable option for the nation to decarbonize fast enough. Nuclear plants can be located near existing fossil fuel plants to reduce the time and expense of new transmission lines. And until a domestic supply of solar panels and batteries is developed, renewable energy and batteries are an uncertain source, he said.
It describes a “perfect storm” that is making the transition to clean energy particularly challenging. Demand is growing as coal-fired plants are retired and new technologies are not fully developed. Also, electric cars are coming.
“Within our community of members, we’re seeing a lot of load growth,” he said.
Environmental watchdog group HEAL Utah has opposed the project since its inception, and Executive Director Lexi Tuddenham said the CFPP cannot get enough participants due to the unlimited financial risk of nuclear power. You pointed to nuclear projects in South Carolina and Georgia that have seen large cost overruns.
“Baseload is important, but nuclear is certainly not the only way to meet that need, beyond demand response, efficiency upgrades and smart grids,” he said. “Battery storage technology of many types is in a phase where it can provide the reliable and dispatchable energy needed to couple with intermittent sources such as wind and solar. In fact it is better and much more efficient at tracking the load than nuclear, which becomes even less convenient as it is switched on and off.
Baker points to the Federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s recently released paper “Examining Supply-Side Options to Achieve 100% Clean Electricity by 2035,” which describes four scenarios for achieving that goal. Three of the four scenarios would add next generation nuclear power plants such as CFPP. The fourth scenario, called the Infrastructure Renaissance, requires the largest investments in the national power grid to distribute electricity across the country, but keeps nuclear power at roughly current levels.
Tuddenham cites Princeton University’s Net Zero America study. That report also presented various scenarios for arriving at a clean power grid, but only one is based on adding a significant number of nuclear power plants.
Like all advanced nuclear designs, the NuScale approach is considered safer than traditional light water reactors which are more susceptible to catastrophic failures. This includes more “passive” safety features that shut down nuclear reactions in the event of an earthquake or weather disaster.
From NuScale’s perspective, the project is still full speed ahead.
“We have issued the long lead material specification for the upper reactor pressure vessel and the UAMPS project remains on track to begin delivering safe and reliable carbon-free energy by the end of this decade,” said Diane Hughes , vice president of NuScale’s Marketing and Communications. She said UAMPS’s license application is scheduled to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2024. The NRC review is expected to be completed in 2026, and construction is slated for later this year. NuScale declined to comment on whether the project needed more participation to move forward.
For all of its safety refinements, CFPP still relies on uranium fission, and with that process comes high-level nuclear waste that takes up to 250,000 years to decay to a safe level. The US government has never found a permanent solution for the waste, which is still stored near the plants that produced it. Like all nuclear plants, the CFPP will pay into a federal fund aimed at developing a solution.
The CFPP isn’t the only effort underway to bring nuclear power to Utah. PacifiCorp, parent company of Rocky Mountain Power and Utah’s largest power company, recently announced it was considering Utah and other sites for a different type of nuclear power plant that uses liquid sodium instead of water to cool the reactor and transfer power. its energy. It also employs a molten salt storage system to store energy for rapid deployment when the wind and sun diminish. The NuScale project doesn’t have that storage option, although CFPP proponents say it can still go up and down as demand needs.
Tim Fitzpatrick is the Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.