Scott Williams: Still many questions about nuclear power

Artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant. (Photo: NuScale)

A recent opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune, advocating for the UAMPS/NuScale nuclear reactor proposal, devotes much more column space to impugning the motivations of the project’s opponents than responding to the fact that there are persistent and unanswered questions about the financial and environmental risks of the project. (”Utah’s clean energy future should include nuclear,” by Erik B. Olson, Aug. 26)

At the August Logan City Council meeting, their financial director, Richard Anderson, described the project this way: “I’ve never thought any of it has made the slightest bit of sense. And the more I listen to the people who are in charge, the less confidence I have in it. ... They haven’t been able to speak any sense to me and I’ve probably wasted three days, four days, five days worth of work on it.”

The council voted 4-1 to end Logan’s participation.

The other Utah towns who must decide before Sept. 30 whether to continue their participation have no guarantee that they won’t be left paying off a huge debt on an over-budget or abandoned project, or with electricity bills for their residents and local businesses that are much higher than they were promised.

This is the fate of many nuclear projects in the past. So before these cities commit millions more of their ratepayer dollars into this project, they deserve the answers Richard Anderson in Logan never received. For example:

  • If this project is such a guaranteed success, why won’t any venture capital fund or major utility sign onto it?

  • Why do UAMPS and NuScale claim they can deliver this power for $55 per megawatt hour, when Rocky Mountain Power, which has much more sophisticated analytics and no financial conflict of interest, estimates that it will cost $95 per megawatt hour?

  • Why has the project budget ballooned from $3 billion in 2017 to $4.2 billion in 2019 to $6.1 billion in 2020?

  • Once construction begins and the cities are locked into their contracts, who will be at risk if the project goes over budget? Who will be at financial risk if NuScale or their parent company Fluor declare bankruptcy (like Westinghouse did in the South Carolina nuclear project)?

  • What will happen if UAMPS can’t find customers for the 540 MW that are currently unsubscribed?

  • Why has UAMPS only been able to attract one new subscriber, Wells, Nevada, at 1 MW, after a year of their full-time marketer pitching the project to multiple potential customers?

HEAL Utah started following this project over two years ago when we realized that if towns subscribe to this source of nuclear energy, it would be the first time that the state has ever used this source of power. While there’s currently no nuclear power in Utah, we have a long, painful history of death, disease and environmental degradation from the nuclear industry’s uranium mining, milling, waste disposal and weapons testing.

Although these small modular reactors would be based in Idaho, there are those businesses who think Utah’s open spaces are only suitable for dumping radioactive waste. EnergyFuels’ attempt to bring in waste from Estonia and EnergySolutions’ decade-long fight to bring in the country’s depleted uranium are prime examples.

Every step of the nuclear fuel chain poses well-known and highly toxic hazards to human health. This waste will be dangerously radioactive throughout our lifetime, our children’s, our grandchildren’s and even generations past our great-grandchildren’s.

Investing in small modular reactors is to turn a blind eye to the financial risks taxpayers will bear, to overlook the truly clean energy solutions that are readily available like renewables, storage, and grid management, and to misleadingly tell Utahns that they must accept financial risk and hazardous waste in order to keep their electricity flowing.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., is executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.