Should this rural Utah county be managing a nuclear research lab?

Two Emery commissioners want out of running San Rafael Energy Research Center amid finance concerns and ‘drama and friction.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Huntington Power Plant with the San Rafael Energy Research Center in the foreground, in Emery County near Orangeville, on Thursday, July 21, 2022. The research center has become the subject of political turmoil in the county.

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Should a rural county of fewer than 10,000 people be managing a nuclear research lab?

Two of three Emery County commissioners have their doubts, and so the San Rafael Energy Research Center is seeking new management.

The question over what to do with the center, which is seen as a vehicle that could lead coal-dependent Emery to a new energy future, comes amid concerns over the center’s finances. The center’s main industry partner, a nuclear startup company, has fallen behind on its payments, and residents don’t know how much county money has been going to the center.

“I believe that moving forward we really do need to see that research center go to an entity that’s larger than our county,” Commissioner Keven Jensen said at a May 16 commission meeting. “Not many research centers are owned and run by counties, unless they’re larger counties.”

Sitting in an old coal mining equipment warehouse on the edge of Orangeville, the San Rafael Energy Research Center shows the risk in trying to make science a savior for small towns. In a blue-collar culture where only 15.1% of adults have a college degree, gambling on exotic technologies is not a familiar concept.

Jensen, a sheep rancher from Cleveland who defeated an incumbent commissioner last November, said in an interview he doesn’t want to see the center fail, but “If you could erase that center, the drama and friction in our county would be so much less.”

The center also tests politicians as arbiters of science. It was first conceived and created by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a group of elected officials from the energy-producing counties in eastern Utah that came up with $7.5 million in state money. And it was the centerpiece of the Cox Administration’s Utah Rural Energy and Diversification and Innovation initiative (U-REDI). The state tried and failed to get a $30 million federal grant for U-REDI that included funding for San Rafael.

“It’s been said that I want to see the center fail, and that’s not accurate,” Jensen said at a March commission meeting. But he said funding sources for the center have to be transparent.

New Commissioner Jordan Leonard agrees. “As it grows, we need to have more professionals at the table who understand all of the workings of the research,” said Leonard, who also took office after beating an incumbent commissioner last November. “My concern is local politics involved in a research center. My feeling is we’re not experts in research.”

Tracking the money

Both Leonard and Jensen said the previous commission had given the impression that the center was all funded by grant money. In fact, the center had been getting around $200,000 a year from the San Rafael Special Service District, a entity that is separate from the county but controlled by commissioners.

Over the objection of holdover Commissioner Lynn Sitterud, the new commissioners have voted to stop special service district funds from flowing to the center, in part because they haven’t seen a full accounting of the center’s finances. The public has not been able to see financial records for the center, and no budget has been made public.

“We’ve been looking for financials for more than a year, and we can’t get them,” said Danny Van Wagoner, the mayor of Castle Dale who has been critical of the center’s opaque finances.

Sitterud said the center has turned to the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments (SEUALG) to provide accounting, and he said the center’s full financials will be available in the next couple of weeks. He estimated that between $400,000 and $500,000 in county funds have gone to the research center over the last three years. Others estimate more.

The center also carries a $490,000 loan from the state’s Community Impact Board. As part of its original $7.5 million funding received through the Seven County Coalition, the center had to agree to make a portion of the funding a loan instead of a grant. SItterud says the center has been making monthly payments.

Sitterud said the county has been working with the Utah State Auditor’s office to get its accounting in order, but he said the center is not being audited at this point. The state auditor’s office does not comment on its interactions with government entities, said spokesperson Nicole Toomey Davis.

Thorium dreams

The San Rafael Energy Research Center was born out of the encouragement of Brigham Young University chemical engineering professor Matthew Memmott, who in meetings with state legislators and county officials pitched the benefits of thorium as a nuclear fuel.

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, of which Emery County is a member, brought Memmott to the Utah Legislature in 2019 to discuss plans for a “Thorium Center of Excellence” in Orangeville. It was conceived as a place where energy research could lead the county on a new path after its two large coal-fired power plants close, which is now expected in less than a decade. The name later became San Rafael Energy Research Center, and it was launched with the $7.5 million from the Seven County coalition.

Four years later, the center has been stocked with millions of dollars in equipment for Memmott’s research. It also has entered into a contract with Alpha Tech Research, an American Fork-based company connected to Memmott that is testing molten salts at the center.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glove boxes, where researchers can handle materials in an oxygen-less environment, are among the equipment installed at the San Rafael Energy Research Center, in Emery County near Orangeville.

Rocky Mountain Power is looking at putting new nuclear power plants in the county to replace the coal plants, and that has fostered confusion about what role the research center might play in Rocky Mountain’s plans.

“The research that is being done up there right now on the nuclear side is falling right in line with what’s needed for these small modular plants that they’re talking about putting in behind Huntington and Hunter,” Sitterud told the May 16 commission meeting.

But the thorium-fueled energy research that Memmott is working on is significantly different from the Terra Power uranium-powered design that Rocky Mountain is planning. Thorium has been studied as a potential fuel for decades, but there are no commercial-scale thorium reactors in this country. Thorium reactors use molten salts to produce energy, but Terra Power would use salts to store energy. Up to this point, Rocky Mountain has not participated in the research center.

Memmott said the work going on now at the center involves testing molten salts, and there are no plans to put a nuclear reactor at the center. He said the work “is going beautifully well.”

But Alpha Tech is behind on its payments, according to Sitterud. The company is supposed to be paying about $40,000 a month, but this year has only sent a half-month’s payment back in January. Sitterud said the center has continued to pay the employees working on Alpha Tech’s projects, and he said the company has pledged to catch up on payments soon.

Alpha Tech also has a right of first refusal to buy the building where its research is taking place. That could impede a transfer to the state or another entity, but Sitterud believes Alpha Tech wouldn’t stop a transfer. Alpha Tech secretary Thor Roundy did not respond to a Tribune inquiry.

A ‘service’ for county residents?

Jensen believes it was improper for the county to fund the center through a special service district. Such districts are intended to provide services to people within the district, which in this case is the whole county. But he doesn’t see how a scientific research center is a “service” to county residents.

Even the special service district’s “certificate of creation” describes purposes that don’t exactly match what is happening at the center. The certificate says services provided would be “receiving federal mineral lease funds as a means for mitigating impacts from extractive mineral industries, and also for an energy efficiency upgrade, a renewable energy system, or electric vehicle charging infrastructure, together with all services ancillary thereto and/or necessary and proper to carry out and provide the named services, including energy research, within the proposed district boundaries.”

Another BYU professor, Andrew Fry, is also carrying out Department of Energy-funded research at the center unrelated to Memmott’s research. Fry’s focus is on building a more efficient process for turning heat into power, work that could have applications across several energy sources.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Andrew Fry stands by the L1500 experimental combustor at the San Rafael Research Center, in Emery County near Orangeville Thursday, July 21, 2022.

Fry said even if the center isn’t affiliated with a university, “it certainly needs participation by research universities. It needs the expertise to drive cutting edge projects in energy.”

The center has contracted with Fry to bring in more work, and he has been running tests on different fuels for energy companies. That has brought in a few hundred thousand dollars. “We’ve had a little profit on some that we’ve been able to put back into equipment.”

“Things are going well, but the facility has a capacity for more,” Fry said. “We need more research institutions to bring their good ideas down there to do the large-scale energy work that isn’t appropriate in a university setting.”

Jeremy Pearson, who was hired last year as the center’s director, has been actively pursuing both industry and scientific partners beyond the two BYU professors. Those efforts haven’t produced any major contracts, but he thinks San Rafael can still be a national player.

“I envision the center and this region ultimately becoming a national epicenter for Advanced Nuclear Energy projects and studies,” Pearson said. “Again, these are long-term efforts that are on track and not facing disruption from what has been occurring at the local level.”

USU ‘no longer interested’

Given the nature of the work, the logical overseer would be a research university, and Utah State University was thought to be in line for it. Pearson is a USU employee, and the university operates USU Eastern 30 miles away in Price.

“We’re no longer interested in that,” said Justen Smith, Director of Agriculture and Natural Resources at USU Extension. “We feel it’s better served between Emery County and the state Office of Energy Development.”

For Kody Powell, USU walking away is the result of political maneuvering. Powell is an associate professor of chemical engineering who was hired as consultant by the center. He worked on a proposal for USU to take over, and an appropriation from this year’s Utah Legislature was tied to USU being involved. “The Legislature intends that Emery County, Utah State University, and the State of Utah establish a memorandum of understanding regarding the future operation and funding of the San Rafael Energy Research Center,” said the intent language with the appropriation.

“To be successful, SRERC needs the right organizational setup and a critical mass of researchers. We had architected a plan that would have provided this and resolved most of the issues facing SRERC,” Powell said.

“I am honestly quite disappointed and frustrated that this plan did not come to fruition,” he added. “When it was proposed last year, our team presumably had buy-in from Emery County, USU, and the Office of Energy Development. It was on this basis that we made our request for what I called “start-up” funds to the legislature. When I saw that this partnership had been formalized into statute, I was thrilled and thought this was a done deal. I did not anticipate the local political machinations that would ensue before we could get the MOU ironed out.”

Political science

With USU declining, it’s likely the center will still be overseen by a political body like the Utah Office of Energy Development or the Seven County Coalition, neither of which has people familiar with running research labs.

“The San Rafael Energy Research Center is a valuable site that benefits the residents of Emery County and the state of Utah,” said Greg Todd, Utah Office of Energy Development director, in a statement. “We want it to continue to be successful. We support the center and its mission to provide space, equipment and staff for energy research. The possibility of the Office of Energy Development increasing its role has been brought up, but no serious discussions have taken place. If there is an increased role the state can play, we are happy to explore the possibility.”

In April, Sitterud returned to the Seven County Coalition to see if the group would take it back. The coalition , voted unanimously to do that if the opportunity arises.

“We have invested a lot in the research center,” Mike McKee, Seven County’s executive director, told the coalition’s board at that meeting. “I’m willing to put in the extra work if that’s the desire of the board and the research center. We’ll make it work if that’s the direction.”

In the meantime, the governor’s office continues to shower accolades on the center. Earlier this month at the Utah One Summit, the San Rafael center was given an “Energy Pioneer Award” for its “anticipated solutions.”

“The San Rafael Energy Research Center, located in Emery County, develops global solutions in sustainable energy from research and piloting to commercialization and local on-site manufacturing,” the award announcement says. “Made possible by partnerships with local universities, government offices, and private sector entities, the anticipated solutions will result in dramatic reductions in the cost of energy, which in turn will accelerate the pace of technological breakthroughs and scientific advancement worldwide.”

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