Douglas O. Hunter: Why the world is watching Utah’s Carbon Free Power Project

A carbon-free future needs nuclear power plants such as the one planned for the Idaho National Laboratory.

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

Across the country and the world, energy experts and environmental leaders are acknowledging the critical role of nuclear energy in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change.

While wind and solar alone face intermittency and reliability challenges, those resources, backed up by stable, carbon-free, always-available nuclear energy, can eliminate carbon emissions from the electrical grid – and do it quickly enough for the world to meet 2050 zero-carbon goals.

This view is supported by an MIT study, which says nuclear energy must be part of the mix of low-carbon energy technologies needed to combat climate change. In fact, decarbonization costs 50% more if nuclear energy is not included.

With that emerging consensus, the global energy world and climate activists are watching with great interest a small modular reactor (SMR) project being developed by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. Named the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), it will usher in a new generation of nuclear energy that is safer, more affordable, faster to deploy, and more flexible than the large traditional nuclear projects.

The CFPP will complement and enable substantial amounts of renewable energy like wind and solar, allowing 27 UAMPS member communities across Utah and surrounding states to decarbonize their energy portfolios. The project has enjoyed strong support from the Biden administration’s Department of Energy, continuing similar support from the Trump and Obama administrations.

Given the critical need for clean, reliable energy for Utah, opposition to UAMPS’ Carbon Free Power Project by HEAL Utah, which published an opinion column in The Salt Lake Tribune on Nov. 3, is both disappointing and based on inaccurate, old and irrelevant information.

Contrary to HEAL Utah’s assertions, the CFPP has been the subject of over a hundred public hearings and meetings in participating communities. The project decision-makers are the city councils and mayors and their appointed representatives among the 27 communities participating in the project. They have been completely transparent, following open meetings laws and making decisions about the project in public meetings.

HEAL Utah is also misinformed in comparing the CFPP to older gigantic nuclear projects that have seen cost overruns and delays. The CFPP small modular reactors will be constructed in a factory and shipped to the project site at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) near Idaho Falls. (INL is the nation’s foremost nuclear research and innovation laboratory.) The advantages of factory fabrication using assembly-line efficiencies and methodologies and eliminating weather-caused delays greatly reduce the possibility of cost overruns.

The opinion column was also inaccurate in stating the project cost has increased from $3.1 billion to $6.1 billion. The lower amount was the “overnight capital cost” for a 12 module/720 MWe/plant and did not include financing over 40 years, escalating labor, construction and component costs and other contingencies and fees. The $6.1 billion figure included all costs for a 12-modules/720 MWe plant. UAMPS members chose to select a smaller configuration of six modules/462 MWe to maximize a design improvement that will increase the output from each module. The actual all-in estimated cost of the six module/462 MWe project, including financing, inflationary costs, etc., is $5.32 billion

We are happy to report that the CFPP is on schedule, using technology with an NRC-approved design. Work is underway right now at the INL site to prepare data and information to apply for approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the plant. It is also on schedule to be fully subscribed (all the plant energy output spoken for) before submitting the application.

At the same time, electrical generation worldwide must increase dramatically as we electrify the transportation and industrial sectors. To meet climate change goals, the use of fossil fuel energy in all those industries must be eliminated. Massive amounts of electricity will be needed. Business guru and visionary Elon Musk recently said electrical production globally needs to double in the next few decades to meet the demand of electric vehicles and other industries.

We can’t meet that demand with wind and solar energy alone. Reliable, always-available backup energy is required. That’s the promise of SMR nuclear energy. Subsequent deployments of projects like the CFPP will be licensed by the NRC in 24 months and, through the benefits of factory production, they will be constructed in under three years compared to well over a decade for some of the recent large nuclear plants.

Doug Hunter is the chief executive officer and general manager of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.

Douglas O. Hunter is the CEO and general manager of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.