‘Devastating’ or ‘really safe’: Southern Utah cities set financial caps for nuclear power project

ST. GEORGE — Several Southern Utah cities are putting financial limits on their involvement in a nuclear power project after other Utah cities pulled out.

Following the withdrawal of seven Utah cities from the Carbon Free Power Project before the October deadline, the Southern Utah cities have passed resolutions to cap financial obligation for the first phase of licensing.

As previously reported by St. George News, the Carbon Free Power Project is a special purpose entity owned by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, more commonly known as UAMPS. The power plant is planned to be located at the department’s Idaho National Laboratory site near Idaho Falls. The reactor modules are approximately one-seventh the size of a regular reactor and the total number they decide to use can be adapted. As it currently stands, a total of 12 modules would make up the plant.

So far, seven Utah cities have withdrawn from participating in the project including Heber, Logan, Bountiful, Beaver, Lehi, Murray and Kaysville. Participating cities in Washington County include Washington City, Santa Clara, Hurricane and Enterprise. Iron County cities Paragonah and Parowan are also taking part.

While Beaver remains the only Southern Utah city to drop out, all remaining Southern Utah cities have approved resolutions relative to the Participants Entitlement Share under the Carbon Free Power Project Power Sales Contract for the remaining first phase of the licensing period.

Jack Taylor, public works director for Santa Clara, told St. George News that after several cities withdrew from the project they wanted to create a monetary safeguard.

Cross Section of NuScale Reactor Module

“If anybody else dropped out, we didn’t want it to continue to go up,” he said, adding that the reason he thinks the other cities dropped out was that “a lot of their city councilmen or power boards didn’t want to get involved with nuclear power.”

Santa Clara’s entitlement share in the Carbon Free Project is 3,000kW. Per the approved resolution, the amount they are willing to spend from this year’s budget is $397,200, an approximate $9,000 increase after the withdrawing of the cities.

“I just didn’t want it to go any higher, so we set a limit. If there’s more that drop out then I’ve got to bring it back to the council. I didn’t want all that responsibility on my shoulders,” he said. “If it got higher then I would bring it back to the council, and they would determine whether they wanted to stay in the project or not.”

Taylor said they think it’s a good project, especially if it stays at $55 per megawatt hour. The only other options are coal or solar and wind, he said, adding that with wind “you only get it 30% of the time.”

“We need something that’s a good baseload that we can count on for our residents here at a reasonable price that’s clean, and that’s the most exciting thing about it,” he said.

Despite the October deadline, Taylor said cities still have a chance to pull out of the project, especially if the project can no longer continue at $55 per megawatt hour.

“If we find out that the cost is over $55  per megawatt hour, then we can either bail out of it or we can say, ‘OK, if it goes up to 60, we still feel like we can afford to do that,'” he said. “But each month that will be looked at.”

Aside from the intermittency nature of solar and wind energy, Taylor said they have wind sourced out of Idaho that is already on the brink of being shut down “because we’re killing bats, and every once in a while an eagle will fly through the blades, and they’ll get hit.”

Taylor, along with the majority of Santa Clara council members, have gone to the facility in Oregon to look at the module prototype and tour control rooms designed to run the plant. He said it is the best option right now when it comes to power, especially when considering future growth trends in the county.

These modules are “really, really safe,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the new wave all over.”

Not all are completely sold on the safety of this power plant.

Scott Williams, the executive director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, told St. George News that one of the major issues with this project has to do with the lack of transparency, as UAMPS is exempt from the Open and Public Meetings Act.

“We don’t get minutes. We don’t get agendas.” he said.

Artistic rendering of NuScale reactor module. | Photo courtesy of Carbon Free Project, St. George News

Williams said Santa Clara isn’t alone in setting a cap for financial obligation; many other cities have also passed resolutions capping their amounts, which have been different and relative to overall need.

From his understanding, he said that UAMPS had a meeting after the October deadline and said that cities’ financial obligations would be kept under the cap for the next phase. The next off-ramp for cities to withdraw will be near the end of the 2021 or early 2022 after the next licensing phase.

UAMPS has also talked about possibly downsizing the project from 12 modules to four or six modules.

“Right now, they have about 700 megawatts or more of subscription that they have to sell to make this thing work,” Williams said. “In the last year, they’ve only sold 1 megawatt of additional subscription.”

Isaac Jones, power supervisor for Enterprise and a member of the UAMPS board of directors, told St. George News that in talking with those who decided to withdraw from the project, he thinks people get nervous when they hear the word “nuclear.”

He also mentioned the solar panel farms that are now on the south side of the city.

“There’s going to come a day when it has to be cleaned up and recycled somehow, and that really hasn’t been thought of yet,” he said. “As much as we appreciate the fact that it’s green energy, it has its issues, too.”

‘Environmentally devastating’

When it comes to potential environmental impacts, Williams said the number one problem is highly radioactive waste.

“We’ve been building nuclear reactors around the country since the 60s, and all of that highly radioactive fuel is just sitting at those power plants with nowhere to go.”

While trying to figure out where to dispose of this radioactive fuel, they started building Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a deep geologic repository, but “it’s very controversial scientifically whether that’s the right place to put it.”

It’s also politically controversial, he added, as “Nevada doesn’t want the entire nation’s nuclear waste coming to their state.”

In the meantime, this nuclear waste continues to sit where it was generated.

“We just think we shouldn’t generate anymore high-level nuclear waste until we have a safe, environmentally responsible way to deal with it.”

Second to this, he said, is the whole process of creating nuclear fuel. All of the stages – mining, milling and enrichment – present health hazards to people.

“Southeastern Utah is full of abandoned uranium mines that create radioactive exposure to the populations down there, and they’re not being cleaned up,” he said, adding that these mines are almost all in San Juan County.

“The entire Navajo Nation is full of them. In fact, we’re just putting a map together; There’s hundreds of them on the Navajo Reservation.”

Much of the mine tailings were put near Moab, he added, and for some 40 years they have been in the process of moving these tailings away from the Colorado River up to a place near Interstate 70, which has cost billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

This project, the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project, is being administered by the U.S. Department of Energy and is about 68% complete with efforts to move 16 million tons of uranium tailings from the banks of the Colorado River to a permanent disposal site 32 miles north, near Crescent Junction.

The final possible implication of the project, Williams said, would be in the case of an accident at the facility, which would be “environmentally devastating.”

“UAMPS and NuScale say this plant is meltdown-proof, but they’ve never actually built one of these modules before, so it’s all theoretical at this point.”

So if not nuclear, what’s the best option?

Aside from wind, solar and hydro (that’s already established), he said there is new technology coming to the scene that will be here before this power plant is finished. This technology includes utility-scale or home-based battery storage for intermittent power sources. Investing in energy efficiency is also integral, as well as making use of wasted power through grid integration.

But what it really comes down to, he said, is a shift in public perception.

“A lot of the people who are proponents of this nuclear plant are still thinking about energy the way we’ve been producing it in the past, and they say, ‘Battery storage will never be economically competitive.’ But they said that about solar 10 years ago, and it’s become cheaper faster than any of them could have predicted.”

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

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