Scott Williams: Utah shouldn’t gamble on unproven nuclear energy without public input

(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.

During the October meeting of the Utah Legislature’s Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a consortium of small cities that operate their own power companies, gave a status update on a nuclear power project to supply electricity for Utahns who live in many of those cities. If this proposal were to succeed, it would be the first time any community in Utah would use nuclear energy to supply its electricity.

During this meeting, common themes of nuclear power being the best and/or only option to secure a reliable source of electricity to fill the gaps of wind and solar power were discussed and pushed forward.

UAMPS project would rely on new and as yet unproven technology. Its participating members would be gambling the dollars of Utah’s taxpayers and ratepayers that this first-of-a-kind project will succeed — a gamble that even risk-taking venture capitalists have shied away from. Our federal tax dollars would be funding much of the research, testing, licensing, construction, liability insurance and, perhaps most importantly, the cost of storing and safeguarding the highly toxic radioactive waste the plant would produce.

Before we accept the claims by the proponents of this project that it is the best and/or only option, the public officials who are approving these expenditures of public funds need to ask the questions about risks, benefits and alternatives that should be asked anytime public funds are being spent. In this case, it’s especially critical to do so because nuclear power projects have a history of significant cost overruns, bankruptcies and municipal bond defaults.

The VC Summer nuclear project budget in South Carolina ballooned from $11 billion to $25 billion. This project was ultimately canceled in 2017 after it was 40% complete and $9 billion had been spent. Ratepayers there will be paying for this mistake for the next 20 years.

The budget for the two new nuclear reactors currently under construction at the Vogtle plant in Georgia has increased from $14 billion to $28 billion.

The budget for the UAMPS nuclear project has already increased from $3.1 billion to $6.1 billion since it was first conceived, and they are still several years away from plant construction. Last fall, Logan, Kaysville, Bountiful, Murray, Heber and Lehi all withdrew because the financial risks were too significant.

The finance director in Logan convinced their city council to pull out, stating, “we’re the last entity that should be participating in risky endeavors. What we should participate in is the 4th or 5th iteration of this project. By that time, I guarantee that the costs will come down to whatever is the market rate for nuclear power.”

After this departure of subscribers, UAMPS decided to cut the size of the plant in half but still insisted that economies of scale would keep the rates competitive. To date, they only have a little over 20% of the purchasing commitments they need to make even this downsized project fully subscribed.

UAMPS issued no requests for proposals to see if this nuclear project was the most cost-effective way to fill the specific need for the power they are trying to address. Their minutes and supporting documents are only available by submitting a formal written public records request. And UAMPS is exempt from Utah’s Open Meetings Act, so the public cannot see the assumptions and calculations they are using to estimate the project’s costs.

We encourage policymakers who are already involved with or are being approached to participate in the UAMPS nuclear power project to invite presentations by independent experts who can provide a balanced analysis of the pros, cons, actual costs and alternatives.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams is the executive director of HEAL Utah.