Should Utah cities turn to nuclear energy? State senators support concept over opposition from environmentalists.

(Photo courtesy of NuScale) An artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s proposed small modular nuclear reactor plant, which will be located at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho.

A resolution that would offer symbolic support for Utah cities participating in a project to add nuclear energy to their power portfolios received unanimous preliminary support in the Senate on Friday.

Though a group of environmental advocates has opposed the resolution, citing waste and economic concerns, the resolution’s sponsor has argued its passage would send an important message that the state, which currently has no nuclear offerings, is supportive of new energy solutions.

“This says that Utah supports the development and integration of advanced nuclear technology as a way of supporting our continued economic growth while addressing our environment, particularly our air quality,” said Sen. Curtis Bramble during a committee hearing on the resolution last week.

Final participation in the Carbon Free Power Project is up to individual municipalities that are members of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a consortium of municipally owned power systems in Utah and several other Western states that has partnered with NuScale power to study and create the technology. Thirty municipalities have signed contracts for the project so far, 26 of which are in Utah.

“What passing a resolution at the state level does is really lend a greater voice to what we’re doing as an organization and what cities are doing throughout the state and the western region we represent,” said Mike Squires, UAMPS’ government affairs director. It says “Utah is open for business as far as carbon free power sources," he said.

Bramble, R-Provo, said the proposed 12-module plant — which would be located at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, where it could power Utah’s cities from hundreds of miles away — is “quite a bit more efficient” than other approaches to nuclear and could help address the state’s poor air quality.

“If we really want to do something with our airshed long term, and if coal is becoming unacceptable because of environmental concerns — and we’re a coal-producing state, we have coal-energy production — as that continues to be challenged, we still need baseload," to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, he said Friday.

A report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance published in June speculates that 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.”

Bramble noted that in 2008 the Legislature passed and the governor signed a state energy policy that said it should pursue all forms of energy if cost effective, which he argued the small modular nuclear reactors would be.

But Michael Shea, a senior policy associate with HEAL Utah, an air quality advocacy group, argues the technology in this particular project is unproven and will likely be more expensive than alternative energy options.

(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.

“There’s other generating sources out there, from wind to solar to natural gas, to energy storage,” he said, noting that the organization is not opposed to nuclear power in general but is to this specific project. “Everything is cheaper than nuclear.”

Murray is the only city in Salt Lake County considering the project, and its City Council has committed $30,000 to explore the new technology. Involved municipalities have plenty of opportunities to leave the project if it proves too expensive — with NuScale promising to reimburse 100 percent of the costs incurred since November 2017 if UAMPS participants choose not to participate past 2019.

HEAL has urged councils not to commit funds to the project, citing the large monetary investment, the newness of the technology and environmental concerns around safe disposal of nuclear waste — worries Shea also shared with legislators in the resolution’s committee hearing.

“It is a resolution, so it’s not going to be the hill we die on,” he told The Tribune in a recent interview. “We’re just trying to let policymakers and lawmakers know that the nuclear industry has tried this many, many times in many variations, and each time it has lead to increased costs for consumers.”

At the same time the small modular reactor resolution is moving through the Legislature, lawmakers are also considering a bill that could effectively reverse Utah’s 14-year-old ban on accepting class B and C radioactive waste. That bill passed through a Senate committee on Thursday.

Its sponsor, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, says HB220 is needed to square Utah regulations with anticipated revisions to federal standards from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But Shea worries the bill could open the door for storage of nuclear waste from the small modular nuclear reactor project.

“You can sort of connect the dots here that if there is a facility in Utah that’s willing to take higher level waste, you can imagine that UAMPS might be interested in storing it there rather than onsite next to their facility,” he said.

UAMPS said the spent fuel will be stored safely at the Idaho National Laboratory site in dry casks, as at other nuclear plants across the country, and that there are no plans to attempt to store it in Utah.

“We’ve never even had a discussion about that,” Squires said. “And to be frank, we didn’t even know about HB220 until after it had been introduced, so we have not had any role in requesting that or championing that.”

Bramble’s resolution, SCR6, requires approval from the House, the Senate and the governor. It is currently awaiting consideration from the full Senate.