David Schlissel: Small modular reactor project likely to end badly for Utah utilities

NuScale plan shows no promise of being better than solar and wind.

An artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant. Photo courtesy of NuScale

Solar and wind power, augmented by battery storage, are becoming less expensive. Hydropower and geothermal energy already are providing substantial amounts of power in many parts of the country. Cost-effective, proven technologies exist and can speed the transition to a carbon-free economy.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) designed by NuScale are not among them.

More than two dozen of the 48 Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) members have signed on to buy power from the NuScale SMR when the project is planned to come online in 2029. But a history of the project — and of nuclear energy projects in general — suggests the project is likely to end badly for utilities and worse for ratepayers.

UAMPS announced earlier this month that the cost per megawatt-hour (MWh), a unit of measurement roughly equivalent to the electricity used by the average U.S. home for a little more than a month, has risen from $58/MWh to $89/MWh, a 53% increase. Plus, the cost of power from the project would be much higher than $89/MWh without more than $4 billion in subsidies the project would receive from the U.S. government. Already, the total cost of the project has risen from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion.

Nuclear advocates often claim that the costs of nuclear reactors fall after a first design, which (if true) would be very good news for the NuScale design. Unfortunately, the nuclear industry has never shown the ability to take advantage of a learning curve, and there is no evidence to suggest that it will be able to do so now. A 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found the costs of successive nuclear projects are more expensive than the original project, which is very bad news for the NuScale design.

It’s also not good news for ratepayers. New reactor designs are already notoriously expensive and highly unlikely to meet initial deadlines. The Westinghouse AP1000 design at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, for example, was originally expected to cost $14 billion and begin operation in 2016. Its price tag has soared past $34 billion, and it won’t provide power until later this year.

Think corporations like Georgia Power, which are posting record profits, will pick up the tab? Think again: Residential consumers have already eaten $1.66 billion of construction costs, with more on the menu.

To be sure, nuclear energy has some advantages. It doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, takes up a relatively small amount of space and produces large amounts of energy. Its advantages, however, become far less apparent when the costs of a nuclear facility — and the time that it takes to build even a modest-sized project — are considered.

Proven, less-costly clean alternatives exist, especially in the western U.S. Geothermal, for example, made up 5.7% of California’s electricity generation in 2021; it was responsible for 9% in Nevada, and it’s being pushed as a much less expensive alternative to the NuScale project. Solar covers about 16% of Arizona electricity production and 6% in New Mexico. Almost 20% of Wyoming electricity comes from wind; in Idaho, the figure is about 16%.

The NuScale SMR is just another in a long line of overhyped and overpriced nuclear projects that take too much time and money — resources the planet doesn’t have in abundance if we’re serious about avoiding cataclysmic climate change by limiting global warming to 1.5⁰C by 2050.

Small modular reactors may be viable one day — but they are not today, will not be tomorrow, and may never make as much economic sense as renewable sources of electricity. We should stick to carbon-free energy sources that make financial and environmental sense.

David Schlissel

David Schlissel is director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, Lakewood, Ohio.