The Murray City Council voted unanimously this week to back out of a first-of-its-kind nuclear power project that has the support of a number of Utah municipalities.
It’s the fourth Utah city to exit the small modular nuclear reactor pursuit over the last few months amid pressure from opponents who have raised concerns about environmental and financial risks of the proposed 12-module plant, which would be located at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls and produce a total 720 megawatts of electricity.
During the city’s Tuesday council meeting, Murray Power Manager Blaine Haacke outlined several advantages of the project, including the potential that it could fill the energy gap that will be left when the Hunter Power Plant in Castle Dale goes offline in the coming years.
But he ultimately recommended that the council vote to back out of the project, saying there were too many risks involved in committing another $1.1 million to $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars, with an ultimate anticipated price tag to city residents of around $2.1 million.
“I think there’s just enough stumbling blocks out there that I’m really concerned about,” Haacke told the council.
The project’s projected costs have ballooned significantly, from $4.5 billion a few years ago to around $6 billion now. And he said there’s a chance that leadership or priority changes on the national level could affect federal appropriations toward the nuclear reactor plant.
But Haacke told the council Tuesday that his biggest concern is that the plant is only 25% subscribed — and it’s not a sure thing that new customers will suddenly come on board once it’s built.
“We’re promised there will be bluer skies and brighter days later on, but I don’t know,” he said. “I love the technology. I trust in the operations and safety of the plant. I just don’t like the feel of the subscription level.”
Haacke said Murray has a diverse power portfolio and that it wouldn’t be “the end of the world” for the city not to move forward with the project. But while the city will eventually need to find a new power resource — “whether it’s hamsters on a wheel,” he joked, or something else — he argued the project “does not fit Murray’s mold right now.”
Ahead of the vote, city staff also read several public comments from residents, all of which urged their elected officials to back out of the project over concerns about both cost and potential environmental impacts.
Rusty Cannon, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, was among those who sent in a written comment, arguing that the municipal power company should not act as a “seed investor” for the new technology.
UTAH CARBON FREE POWER PROJECT PARTICIPANTS:
• Brigham City
• Mount Pleasant
• Oak City
• Santa Clara
• South Utah Valley Electric Service District
• Spring City
• Weber Basin
- Utah Associated Municipal Power Services
That responsibility, he said, should lie with the private sector, and “municipal power companies could instead look to purchase power from such a project upon its completion” around 2029.
Environmental groups, such as the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, have also raised concerns about the radioactive waste that would be generated by the project.
Haacke said backing out of the Carbon Free Power Project would not limit the city from exploring nuclear energy in the coming years but said he believes the cost of this project would be the lowest of its kind for the foreseeable future, when considering the federal government’s support.
The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems — 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 nuclear technology — announced this month that the Department of Energy had approved a multiyear cost share award of $1.355 billion for development of the project.
Douglas Hunter, CEO and general manager of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, characterized that appropriation as a “tremendous vote of confidence” in the project.
“The award demonstrates the importance of the [Carbon Free Power Project], which will be the first NuScale small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) project in the United States,” UAMPS said in a news release. “The award also demonstrates DOE’s commitment to accelerate the decarbonization of electrical generation nationwide and globally, and to support stable, carbon-free electrical supply to complement intermittent renewable energy.”
But Cannon argued that the announcement “does not change the projected costs or risks for cities that remain on the small modular nuclear reactor program.”
“This appropriation from the federal government has always been planned on,” he said in a written comment read aloud by city staff. “Without it, the project would not move forward.”
Despite the federal government’s support, the future of the project seems murkier now that Murray has joined Lehi, Logan and Kaysville in backing out of the project. And Haacke said he’s heard rumors that other cities are considering an exit as well ahead of a recently-extended deadline to “off-ramp” from the project.
He told the council that he expects UAMPS will carry the project forward without Murray. But he said the association’s members will meet during the first week of November to make a final decision, after they find out how many cities have exited.
“If there are enough [municipalities] that have dropped out, as a UAMPS committee we will say, ‘let’s just drop it and move on,’” he said.
LaVarr Webb, a spokesman for UAMPS, said he is confident the project will move forward, noting “high involvement” among 32 of the association’s members. And now that the Department of Energy funding is in place, he said he expects more will join.
“There obviously does need to be a lot more subscription and there is a lot of interest in the northwest and in the southwest," he said. "Those discussions are ongoing with additional utilities, both large and small.”
The Utah cities that remain in the Carbon Free Power Project have until Oct. 31 to drop out or to appropriate additional funds to the small modular reactor project.
Webb said he anticipates “the vast majority” of those cities will vote to move forward.