US energy co-op plans small-scale nuclear reactors

The Utah-based energy supplier wants to build 12 small-scale reactors developed by Oregon’s NuScale Power, as part of its efforts to decarbonise

An energy co-op is looking to build 12 small-scale nuclear reactors in Idaho after the design was approved by regulators.

NuScale Power, a private company based in Portland, Oregon, has been given the green light by the Nuclear Regulator Commission to construct the reactors in 2029 and 2030.

The reactors will be operated by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a political subdivision of the State of Utah that delivers energy services on a nonprofit basis, to community-owned power systems.

NuScale’s reactors are 2.7 m wide and 20m high and use light water cooling methods to run low enriched uranium fuel assemblies. Each module is expected to produce around 60mW – enought to power more than 50,000 homes.

UAMPS, which has members in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming, is planning to build reactors at a US Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho.

NuScale says the reactors have advanced safety features, including self-cooling and automatic shutdown.

“This is a significant milestone not only for NuScale, but also for the entire U.S. nuclear sector and the other advanced nuclear technologies that will follow,” said NuScale chairman and CEO John Hopkins.

UAMPS says the project is part of its Carbon Free Power Project to move away from fossil fuels, and will work in conjunction with energy efficiency measures and solar power initiatives.

LaVarr Webb, as spokesman for the co-op, said members would use a portion of the electricity generated, and some would be sold to other utilities.

The co-op will now submit a combined construction and operating license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and an environmental analysis will be conducted. Webb said the cooperative will likely have that ready within two years.

The Utah Taxpayers Association has criticised the plan, arguing that nuclear energy projects in the past have been hit by soaring costs. UAMPS says this is not a fair argument because modern reactors are cheaper and more efficient.

Other critics have raised safety concerns. In a report for Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, M V Ramana – director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia – said that although small reactors of this type are safer, siting multiple reactors in one location could increase risk.

“An accident at one unit might either induce accidents at others or make it harder to take preventive actions at others. Further, if the underlying reason for the accident is a common one that affects all of the reactors, such
as an earthquake, it is possible that many, or even all, units could undergo accidents. In that case, the combined radioactive inventories are sizeable.”

He also voiced concern over the problem of nuclear waste and said that the falling cost of renewables made such projects seem less prudent.

UAMPS says the project is necessary to supplement intermitted renewable energy supplies and stabilise the grid.

The proposal is “safer than existing designs, cost competitive, reliable and affordable,” it said. “The innovation … is in using and re-packaging proven pressurised light water reactor materials, fuels and safety features in a simpler, safer, more elegant way.”

Nuclear is already part of the energy source for some electric co-ops. Mississipi’s Cooperative Energy owns a 10% stake in the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station; Allegheny Electric Cooperative – based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey – has a 10% stake in the the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station; and Kansas Electric Power Cooperative owns a 6% stake in the Wolf Creek nuclear plant.

NRECA, the apex body for US electric co-ops, says on its website: “Co-ops support federal policies that ensure existing nuclear power plants will continue to provide clean and reliable electricity. We support policies that promote investment in the next generation of nuclear plants and urge the federal government to build a national repository for high-level radioactive waste.”

But there is still huge opposition from the green movement. On its website, Greenpeace America says: “Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future. Nuclear energy is both expensive and dangerous, and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn’t mean it’s clean.”

There are a few environmentalists who have argued that nuclear energy is a vital tool if the world is to rapidly decarbonise to reduce the threat of climate change. Notable advocates from the green movement include Dr James Lovelock – originator of the Gaia Hypohothesis – and Stewart Brand, author of The Whole Earth Discipline.