Erik B. Olson: Utah’s clean energy future should include nuclear

Utah’s clean energy future is under threat from an unholy alliance of anti-nuclear environmentalists and free market ideologues. Last week, the Utah Taxpayers Association joined HEAL Utah in calling for 27 Utah municipalities to withdraw from a groundbreaking nuclear energy project.

The project would produce more than 150 megawatts of electricity for Utah from 12 small, next-generation, nuclear reactors sited at the Idaho National Laboratory. Together, with wind and solar energy, the project holds the key to assuring that Utah will be able to cut emissions with clean and reliable electricity in the coming decades.

The Taxpayers Association opposes this project based on the claim that nuclear is costly and unnecessary because the state’s electricity needs can be met with wind and solar energy. Yet, its only consistent position seems to be attacking clean energy. Over time, the Taxpayers Association has consistently opposed tax incentives and other policies that support wind and solar energy. There is no reason to believe it legitimately supports clean energy.

HEAL Utah, for its part, claims that it is concerned about air pollution and climate change, but it opposes the UAMPS project despite the fact that Utah still depends upon fossil fuels for 82% of its energy and has allied itself with an organization, the Taxpayers Association, misrepresenting itself as a consumer watchdog when it really represents some of the state’s biggest polluting corporations — including natural gas utility giant Dominion Energy.

Its own study, making the claim that nuclear energy will increase ratepayer costs, compares those costs to an electricity grid in which neither emissions reductions nor a high penetration of renewable energy is a major priority.

Nor does the study account for the health costs associated with air pollution, the full cost of integrating renewable energy into the system, or the full cost of climate change. And it puts a further finger on the scale by assuming that the Nuscale reactors, built to operate for 60 years, will only operate for 20.

There are legitimate reasons to be cautious about the UAMPS project. The NuScale reactors still require final approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and are not slated to begin generating electricity until 2029. It is possible that the project will end up being delayed and over budget, but pulling out now would be premature and skittish. If costs associated with the project rise substantially, UAMPS and its members will have ample opportunity to pull the plug.

HEAL Utah and the Taxpayers Association, blinded by ideology and dogmatism, would continue Utah’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels rather than support sensible measures to transition the state toward a diverse portfolio of electricity sources generated by wind, solar and nuclear energy. Should they succeed, our air quality and infamous inversions will only get worse. Our winters will get shorter and our snowpack will decline. Wildfires and drought will become more severe.

It is important, of course, to keep electricity prices low. However, doing so by offloading the costs of air pollution and climate change to businesses, taxpayers and consumers while lining the pockets of coal, gas, and utility interests is neither sensible nor just.

That’s why hundreds of Utahns have shown up at dozens of public hearings over the past several years to support the new reactors. It is also why HEAL and the Taxpayers Association have resorted to disingenuous arguments to oppose the project.

As a concerned Utahn, a clean energy analyst, and a citizen whose electricity bills have helped fund the planning of this project, I hope my fellow citizens will reject the cynical claims of the Utah Taxpayers Association and HEAL and bet on clean nuclear, solar and wind to protect our health and environment.

Erik B. Olson

Erik B. Olson is a climate and energy analyst with the Breakthrough Institute, alumnus of Utah State University, resident of Salt Lake City, and climate hawk.