Utah cities abandon their decadelong plan for a nuclear power plant in Idaho

UAMPS ends the “Carbon Free Power Project” because it couldn’t get more to join them and shoulder the cost.

(NuScale Power) A rendering shows what the Carbon Free Power Project would have looked like at Idaho National Laboratory. The project was cancelled on Nov. 8, 2023.

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After nearly a decade of planning, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems has given up its effort to provide 27 communities with nuclear power by 2029.

UAMPS and NuScale, the company that was going to build and operate small nuclear reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory, jointly announced that they were ending the “Carbon Free Power Project.” The project would have provided power to Bountiful, Brigham City and 25 other communities, most of them in Utah.

Mason Baker, UAMPS CEO and general manager, said in an interview that it was “a disappointing outcome” for the cities and towns pursuing the project, but neither UAMPS nor NuScale could find enough utilities or government power systems willing to commit to the project.

The cities had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2015 on preliminary work for CFPP, but UAMPS had negotiated “off-ramps” where the cities could quit before having to issue bonds to come up with their share for the multi-billion-dollar project.

With no one else signing on, they elected to take an off ramp, Baker said. “The most prudent decision was not to make further expenditures.”

Wednesday’s announcement was validation for Lexi Tuddenham, executive director at HEAL Utah, which has opposed CFPP since the beginning. “The risk around costs and timeline played out in a way that we were very aware of for a long time,” she said.

As is common with nuclear power, the project had more than doubled in price since it was first proposed. The last price estimate came in at more than $9 billion, but it included a $4.2 billion commitment from the U.S. government.

In the end, CFPP never got close to finding enough partners. UAMPS had only committed to taking 26% of the power it was expected to produce, but the project needed an 80% commitment to proceed.

Baker said the decision was not entirely unexpected. ”We’ve had to plan for this sort of contingency,” he said, and UAMPS is now focusing on finding new sources of energy. That is challenge for electricity providers across the West as the region grows and older, fossil-fuel sources are retired.

“We’ve identified a significant amount of new resource development,” he said. That includes expanding a wind farm in Idaho, adding more utility-scale solar power and a possible power purchase agreement with a geothermal energy provider. He also said they are looking at natural gas power.

One issue is developing resources that can provide power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. To that end, Baker said UAMPS is looking to have utility-scale batteries associated with all solar sources. “There’s times of day where there’s so much solar. We want to put it to better use.”

But like all electricity providers, UAMPS is competing for limited resources as demand increases and supply chains continue to be an issue in getting projects built. “Doing resource development in this environment is very challenging,” Baker said.

Tuddenham lamented the “waste” the communities have experienced, when they should have been working toward clean energy sources that are more proven and less costly. “What has happened is that the ratepayers and the member municipalities are being let down. ... We need to keep the communities at the forefront.”

Added Luis Miranda, acting director for the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter: “UAMPS and NuScale’s mutual decision to terminate the nuclear project is an opportunity to explore actual clean and renewable energy options.”

Despite the cancellation, Mason said, the participants did gain from the process and are much more knowledgable about nuclear energy, which he still sees as a key component of a clean-energy future.

And NuScale is still moving forward in developing its small modular reactors (SMR) for other customers, the company noted in the announcement.

“NuScale will continue with our other domestic and international customers to bring our American SMR technology to market and grow the U.S. nuclear manufacturing base, creating jobs across the U.S. We thank UAMPS for the collaboration that has enabled this advancement.”