The country’s first small nuclear modular reactor is gaining traction, and it has the support of more than 20 municipalities that own their own power in Utah as they brace for a world without coal production. The state currently has no nuclear energy offerings.

The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a consortium of municipally owned power systems in Utah and several other Western states, has partnered with NuScale Power to study and create the technology. The proposed 12-module plant would be at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, where it could power Utah’s cities from hundreds of miles away.

In Salt Lake County, Murray has committed $15,000 so far to the Carbon Free Power Project to explore the new technology, according to Murray Power Manager Blaine Haacke. The council will have to decide whether to recommit funds to studying the project at a meeting next month.

“It’s a little bit of a controversial issue, you know, bringing nuclear,” Haacke said. “Utah doesn’t have nuclear, and so it’s a new mindset, I guess you could say.”

If they stick with the project, the 28 municipalities that have signed sales contracts for the project wouldn’t actually power their cities with nuclear energy until around 2026, since the project is now in the exploratory phase, with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently reviewing the NuScale reactor design.

UAMPS is funding 25 percent of the project, with the Department of Energy funding half and NuScale covering the rest. NuScale has estimated the plant will cost just under $3 billion to build, and Haacke estimated that construction would begin around 2023.

Though still in the early going, the small modular reactor proposal has caused concern for HEAL Utah, a clean-air advocacy group that urged Murray’s council at its work meeting last week not to recommit funds to the project.

“I think it’s a pretty good question to ask: Why is kind of a small municipal utility conglomerate thinking about getting into a huge, huge capital-intensive generation process when, you know, there’s much more cost effective and proven technologies available?” Michael Shea, a senior policy associate from the group, later told The Salt Lake Tribune.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Michael Shea of HEAL Utah speaks after Gov. Gary R. Herbert, Sen. Curt Bramble and industry leaders formally announced the state's net metering agreement for residents with solar panels and discussed what the outcome means for Utah's energy future, Oct. 4, 2017.

‘You don’t want all your eggs in one basket’

Though HEAL Utah has cautioned cities considering the project about its possible economic impact — with Shea noting that “almost every nuclear project in the country” has had “massive delays and massive cost overruns” — Haacke said he sees the new SMR technology as a smart investment in Murray’s future.

“We have quite a bit of coal production that we buy our energy from, and we know that coal is being phased out,” he said. “We don’t know what that’s going to be 20 years from now. We could be totally coal-free in the region, so we need to come up with some resource that will replace that — and nuclear might be that resource.”

A report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance published in June speculates coal will be “squeezed out” of the power generation market over the next 30 years, “as the cost of renewables plunges and technology improves the flexibility of grids globally.”

Right now, Murray powers its city with around 43 percent coal. The city’s current buy-in of 1 megawatt of nuclear energy would likely constitute only 2 percent of the city’s energy needs per year, Haacke said, so it wouldn’t come close to replacing coal. But Haacke expects the new small modular reactor technology may “take off,” with financial rewards to those who invested early.

Like Murray, Logan’s City Council is one of several municipalities that are also considering whether to recommit funds to the project. And though the municipality’s $200,000 investment is much deeper than Murray’s is, Logan Power Director Mark Montgomery said it’s a relatively low financial risk for a high possible reward.

“People want their lights to turn on when they flip the switch and they want to be cool in the summer and they want to be warm in the winter, so our job is to make sure we have some kind of a resource to back that usage up,” he said, noting that nuclear could be the answer under a declining coal industry.

“It’s kind of like financial portfolio,” Montgomery added. “You don’t want all your eggs in one basket. You want it spread around so if one [energy resource] has a problem, you can still have power.”

(Photo courtesy of NuScale) Murray and 29 other municipalities across Utah are exploring the potential of small modular nuclear reactors as part of their future power portfolios. LaVarr Webb, a spokesman for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, said the scale of the SMRs allows for a simpler and safer design than traditional nuclear plants.

‘Once you have nuclear, you always have nuclear’

While there are plenty of opportunities to “offramp” from the project — with NuScale promising to reimburse 100 percent of the costs incurred since November 2017 if UAMPS participants choose not to participate past 2019 — Haacke said he thinks the city is “comfortable with it right now.”

But Murray Council Chair Diane Turner said she’s leaning toward voting against Murray’s continued involvement in the project in August due to environmental and economic concerns.

“To me, it makes sense to look more and to put all that money into renewables rather than just going with nuclear, because it’s not truly a clean energy,” she said. “And that’s kind of how it’s being touted, but I mean — once you have nuclear, you always have nuclear.”

Turner was referring to the issue of radioactive waste — the safe disposal of which has long plagued the commercial industry.

LaVarr Webb, a spokesman for UAMPS, said the spent fuel would be stored safely at the Idaho National Laboratory site in dry casks, as at other nuclear plants across the country. And while renewables will likely play an increasing role in power portfolios in the future, he said nuclear energy has its place, as well.

“In looking at what will complement renewables so power can be provided when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, [UAMPS] did think that nuclear was the best way to go,” he said. “Especially this new small modular reactor that is dramatically different than the traditional large nuclear plants.”

Webb said the scale of the small modular reactors allows for a simpler and safer design than traditional nuclear plants. And the reactors can shut themselves down and self-cool, with no operator action necessary, which means a disaster like the one at Fukushima in 2011 would be unlikely, he said.

Though Shea conceded that nuclear energy is coal-free and therefore not as polluting as other energy production, he’s worried about the large amounts of water use and the blueprint for managing radioactive waste.

“How do you possibly plan for dealing with a substance that’s going to stay deadly poisonous for the next 10,000 years? The truth is you can’t,” he said. “And that gets kind of to the core of why HEAL opposes it.”

UTAH CARBON FREE POWER PROJECT PARTICIPANTS
• Beaver City
• Blanding City
• City of Bountiful
• Brigham City
• City of Enterprise
• Ephraim City
• Fairview City 
• Fillmore City
• Holden Town
• Hurricane City
• Hyrum City
• Kanosh Town
• Kaysville City
• Lehi City
• Monroe City
• Mt. Pleasant City
• Town of Oak City
• Payson City
• City of Santa Clara
• South Utah Valley Electric Service District
• Spring City
• Washington City
• Weber Basin Water Conservancy District


Correction: A previous version of this article and its headline misstated the number of cities involved in the small modular nuclear reactors project. There are 28, and 23 are in Utah.