Opinion: The failed Nuscale project lets Utah down — again

Every time we gamble on a nuclear project like Nuscale to deliver carbon-free power, we are hampering our ability to meet critical climate goals by 2030.

(NuScale Power) Rendering shows what the Carbon Free Power Project would look like at Idaho National Laboratory. The plan calls for six 77-megawatt nuclear reactors.

Early last month, Nuscale made headlines by canceling its 462 MW proposal for a small modular nuclear reactor (SMNR) at the Idaho National Laboratory. Here in Utah, the news was met with little surprise.

For the past six years, we’ve been raising crucial questions about the viability of the so-called “Carbon Free Power Project” (CFPP). Was it a project that could deliver power on time and at a reasonable cost to ratepayers? How much would taxpayers and ratepayers ultimately pay, and who would bear the environmental, public health and financial risks? Could it meet our energy needs at a time when electrification is more critical than ever?

In 2015, the Nuscale project was eight years out. In 2022, it was still eight years out. As we watched other nuclear power projects be abandoned or blunder online years late and billions of dollars over cost, there was a sense of inevitability about who would suffer when this project failed: the communities who had placed their faith in its fantastical promises of affordable, reliable and “clean” power.

We were told that these SMNRs would be revolutionary — smaller, more cost-effective and with cutting-edge technology, but as we watched the costs swell from $55/MWh to $89/MWh and well beyond, even with huge federal subsidies, it was clear the financial risks were only mounting. With the collapse of the hypothetical project, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) member communities in rapidly growing areas like Hurricane and Washington City are now left with the reality of scrambling for alternatives to meet their future energy needs.

As we see nuclear projects around the country experience delay after delay, the Nuscale experience is one reason why we continue to watch the developments of the Terrapower Natrium reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, with a mix of skepticism and concern. The other reason is that the Terrapower project has promised not just electricity to Pacificorp customers, but also jobs in a community that desperately needs them. This is irresponsible at best.

The projected timeline for the Terrapower reactor to come online has already been pushed to 2030, which Terrapower external affairs director Jeff Navin admits is “cutting it close.” In addition, the community faces an economic abyss between the projected closure of the coal plant and the startup of the nuclear facility, and federal officials recently noted that with no permanent waste repository existent in the U.S., spent nuclear fuel will be stored “temporarily” on-site. Similar concerns can and should be raised about the proposed nuclear plants at Hunter and Huntington in Utah. At the end of the day, it is workers who are being let down, and it is communities who have to deal with the long term consequences.

We know that the next few years are of critical importance in our ability to combat the worst effects of climate change before we kick off even more warming feedback loops. Every time we gamble on a nuclear project like Nuscale to deliver carbon-free power, we are hampering our ability to meet critical climate goals by 2030. As timelines for such projects are inevitably dragged out, in the interim we continue to burn fossil fuels that choke the air that people breathe and force the climate ever closer to its tipping point.

The hard truth is that there is no silver bullet for climate change. Relying on nuclear power maintains dependence on a flawed energy system that primarily benefits industries that have historically profited from past harms. Now they promise to seamlessly plug in nuclear power and conduct business as usual.

According to the latest estimates, about a billion dollars was sunk into the now-abandoned Nuscale CFPP. This is a drop in the bucket compared to some other nuclear projects this country has seen over the last 30 years. But imagine that $1 billion spent elsewhere on legacy cleanups of the nuclear and uranium mining industry, aiding Downwinders or boosting renewable energy capacity that we know can work. There is an opportunity cost for investing in nuclear when we have faster, lower-risk options that we can prioritize now. Instead, we can take on climate change with what has been called “rational hope,” by investing in wind, solar, geothermal power, storage, grid improvements and efficiency technologies that offer cost-effective climate solutions. And Utah’s potential in these areas is immense.

But this energy future requires a reimagining. It requires permitting and energy-sourcing processes that put the health and vitality of communities front and center. It means changing course to avoid mistakes of the past.

Here at HEAL Utah, we collaborate with communities to shape an energy future crafted by the people it serves. This future prioritizes clean air, a healthy environment and family-sustaining jobs, all powered by accessible, sustainable and affordable renewable energy sources. In short, this is rational hope in practice. Together, we can make it a reality.

Lexi Tuddenham

Lexi Tuddenham is the executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).

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