Nuclear power opponents call for more transparency in project that includes local cities

ST. GEORGE — The Utah Taxpayers Association is continuing its ongoing opposition to a nuclear research and development project at the Idaho National Laboratory that includes four local cities as beneficiaries.

The next-generation nuclear power project, touted by its proponent Oregon-based NuScale Power, is currently moving toward design certification from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission – expected later this year.

The NuScale projected is licensed by the U.S. Department of Energy, with energy contracts signed through the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), which is considering the viability of using a cluster of 12 small modular reactors that could produce 720 megawatts of energy or enough power for more than 600,000 homes.

The endeavor is known as the Carbon Free Power Project.

The technology of using small reactors is not technically new. The basic technology has been used for nearly 70 years.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was the first nuclear-powered submarine. Her keel was laid on June 14, 1952. She was launched 18 months later and commissioned in September 1954. On March 3, 1980, she was decommissioned after 25 years of service. More than 150 ships are currently powered by more than 200 small nuclear reactors. Most are submarines, but they range from icebreakers to aircraft carriers.

Since the 1950s, the technology has been improved, upgraded, designed smaller, digitized and simplified.

Cross Section of NuScale’s small reactor module. Photo courtesy NuScale Power, St. George News

Some energy industry experts say comparing the NuScale design to nuclear power technology of the 1950s through the late 1960s like comparing the emergence of the first jet-powered aircraft during World War II with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth combat aircraft 64 years later.

UAMPS currently operates 16 separate projects that provide power supply, transmission and other services to its members who participate in them. Members choose which projects they participate in, based on their power needs.

So far, more than 30 municipalities in Idaho, California, New Mexico and Utah including the cities of Enterprise, Hurricane, Santa Clara and Washington City have joined the Carbon Free Power Project as end consumers of energy generated.

Although not part of the compact, St. George has a 10-year master plan that will move its energy customers away from a largely coal-based top-heavy mix and toward more renewable energy.

In 2019, the city’s energy mix was 25% coal, 10% hydroelectric, 40% natural gas, 20% energy purchased on the open market and 2% solar. By 2029, the energy mix is anticipated to be 0% coal, 10% hydroelectric, 32% natural gas, 25% market and 13% renewables.

The UAMPS project is anticipated to provide commercial energy by 2029-30.

Critics of the regulatory process, the Utah Taxpayers Association say to date the only information on the project has come from town hall meetings presented by UAMPS, which is exempt from Utah’s open meeting laws.

Any data presented during closed sessions involving contract negotiations, confidential financial issues and personnel matters are not available for public review.

A caveat to the taxpayers association criticisms is that similar information presented in any other closed session across government and private industries are also not available for public consumption.

“While the initial goal of the project might have been sound to work toward a reliable cost-effective power source, the evidence … provides a bleak picture of the massive high-risk financial commitments cities will make long into the future,” said Rusty Cannon, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association during a recent telephone-based press conference in which the St. George News attended.

The taxpayers association says worst-case scenarios could result in participating municipalities paying for cost overruns on a project that is already estimated at $4 billion, and ultimately could pay a “significantly higher price tag” if the project fails and municipal contracts are enforced.

The association is calling to hold a public vote within the UAMPS membership no later than Sept. 14 to withdraw from the project. On that date, “ratepayers will be locked into commitments of more than $100 million and billions of dollars of risks later on,” Cannon added.

Artistic rendering of NuScale’s Carbon Free Power Project site,  Idaho Falls, Idaho. Photo courtesy NuScale Power, St. George News

Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems balks at the taxpayers association’s assertions.

“The (association’s) premise that this project lacks transparency is ridiculous on its face,” said UAMPS spokesperson LaVarr Webb. “More than 120 open meetings have been held across the membership. The nature of our governance assures an open process with 36 different governing bodies (including) city councils and mayors.”

Webb added that UAMPS has been “responsive to requests for information” including those from the taxpayers association that declined face-to-face meetings for three months. Eventually, a nearly three-hour electronic meeting was held between the two parties on July 28, with a follow-up meeting on July 30.

However, before UAMPS could respond to the association’s issues, it held an Aug. 4 press conference “criticizing” the project and calling for the withdrawal of the ratepayer communities.

“They obviously had their minds made up before even receiving our answers to their questions, or doing due diligence about the details of the project,” Webb added.

This he said was a disingenuous act that smacked of hypocrisy.

While St. George officials are measuring to add NuScale generated power to its energy mix, Mayor Jon Pike supports transparency when making any decision.

“Our decision as it relates to this has been not to become a direct investor, but possibly buy some of the power,” Pike said. “We want to totally understand the technology, its benefits and its safety before we become overly committed. Before we move forward, I would support having as much information as possible so that we can make an informed decision.”

The taxpayers association also criticizes the lack of subscriptions in UAMPS membership in the project, saying it only has attracted 30% of its energy consumer base.

“The subscriptions have only increased 1-megawatt out of 213 in the last year,” Cannon said. “Investor-owned utilities have turned down these types of projects for good reason. The low amount of subscriptions shows that relative to coal, natural gas, solar and wind, small modular nuclear power plants are just not cost-competitive.”

Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission supports Cannon’s claims.

“We are 20 years into the nuclear renaissance and not one single molecule of carbon in the U.S. has been displaced by a new reactor,” Bradford said. “This is 20 lost years … in the fight against climate change.”

Had the money and time, Bradford added, been allocated to the development of renewable energy options the “savings would have been larger, electricity cheaper and new jobs plentiful.”

Artistic rendering of a NuScale reactor module comparative size. Photo courtesy NuScale Power, St. George News

UAMPS again disagrees with the association’s assumptions.

“As the project has continued development and details have been refined some cost has gone up,” Webb said. “But, the important fact is that the projected cost of power to ratepayers has actually gone down.”

The cost of energy during the next 40 years has dropped from $55 per megawatt-hour from $65 per megawatt-hour since first estimates.

Participants, UAMPS maintains, have options to drop out of the project and reduce or increase subscription levels.

To reduce financial risks UAMPS anticipates certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, subsequent federal funding and nailing down “precise” engineering and refined cost estimates.

Rick Hansen, Washington City power department director and UAMPS board member, has a bit of a different perspective on the Carbon Free Power Project than most other municipalities.

“Nothing is being kept from the public,” Hansen said. “Other than handling executive session issues behind closed doors, which is pretty normal, there is nothing unusual happening. I am not sure why the Utah Taxpayers Association feels left out, but they can’t expect to be part of things like strategy sessions.”

The debate continues.

Energy experts say that despite all of the arguments pro and con for nuclear, the major stumbling blocks to providing dependable renewable or carbon-free energy are developing better and more efficient battery storage and the construction and upgrades to transmission lines, especially for what is known as the “last mile” or getting energy to individual neighborhoods and homes.

Experts add that until committing funding, whether from public or private mechanisms, for the development of and construction of infrastructure, no matter where the electrons come from, making a dent in the dependency on traditional energy sources will not be solved.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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