Site permit approved for nuclear reactor

NuScale’s Corvallis, Ore. headquarters includes a replica of what the company’s nuclear reactor power plant control room would look like. Courtesy NuScale

A cross-section rendering of the proposed NuScale nuclear power plant shows how separate power modules, on the right, would sit in a pool of water below ground. Courtesy NuScale

Courtesy NuScale

A cross-section rendering shows an individual power module inside the proposed NuScale nuclear power plant. The NuScale design would fit as many as 12 of the modules, which could be installed based on energy demand. A mock-up of one of NuScale’s power modules sits outside the Oregon company’s Corvallis offices. Courtesy NuScale

The long process of building a small modular nuclear reactor in the desert west of Idaho Falls has begun.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Thursday that it granted a site use permit for the reactor to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS. The permit allows the Salt Lake City-based energy cooperative to find an ideal location for the reactor on the DOE’s 890-square-mile desert site.

“It’s important, but it’s still a preliminary step,” UAMPS spokesman LaVarr Webb said of the agreement. “It’s one of many steps that will need to be taken.”

UAMPS and the company designing the first-of-its-kind reactor, NuScale Power, have hinted at moving forward in Idaho for more than a year. But the Thursday site agreement offers the first concrete evidence that the so-called “Carbon Free Power Project” ultimately will be built here.

Local officials welcomed Thursday’s news. Such a plant would provide carbon-free “baseload” power to the local grid, said Idaho Falls Power General Manager Jackie Flowers. The utility is one of 45 community-owned utilities operating under the UAMPS umbrella.

The permit, signed by DOE and UAMPS officials, lays out a framework for identifying the best location for the nuclear plant. UAMPS has already identified “four or five” ideal land parcels, but “haven’t zeroed in on one particular spot,” Webb said.

With input from DOE and Idaho National Laboratory, UAMPS will narrow it down to one location in the next four to six weeks, he said. DOE will need to sign off on the final location, and could nix it if the site is deemed “incompatible” with the goals of DOE and INL, according to the permit.

Assuming a site is agreed upon, a battery of environmental studies and other tests will need to be conducted to ensure the location will work. Eventually the site will require approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“This (DOE) site is very well characterized, because there have been so many nuclear plants out there,” said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer.

As UAMPS works on finding an ideal location for the project, McGough and NuScale continue to work toward licensing their reactor design with the NRC, a process he said remains on track. The company hopes to submit the 12,000-page design document to the agency by the end of the year.

The Oregon-based company’s first-of-its-kind modular design would allow most of the plant’s components to be built at a factory and shipped to the site by rail or truck.

The design generates less power but is thought to be safer and more flexible than traditional large water reactors.

Each individual reactor or “power module” would produce 50 megawatts of energy. Additional modules could be added to a plant site as energy demand increases; as many as 12 modules could be paired together in one plant. The reactors would be installed below ground in a steel-lined concrete pool.

“Small modular reactors are an important new step toward safe, reliable, carbon-free technology,” Lynn Orr, DOE’s undersecretary for science and technology, said in a statement. The agency has pushed for the small reactors’ development for several years, including giving tens of millions of dollars in funding to the NuScale project.

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper has been another vocal proponent of bringing the small modular nuclear reactor to eastern Idaho.

“The approval of the site use agreement represents a very big opportunity for Idaho to maintain its position of leadership as relates to advancing nuclear energy,” she said in a statement. She said such a project had the potential to “impact the state, region, nation, environment and even international markets.”

UAMPS settled on the Idaho desert site as the best place for the nuclear plant after also examining several locations in Utah and eastern Washington, Webb said.

He said UAMPS would begin an outreach process with eastern Idaho stakeholders in the coming months, to further explain the project.

The Idaho Falls-based organization Partnership for Science and Technology will be watching the project closely going forward, said Richard Holman, the president of its board of directors. He promised his organization would ask tough, technical questions about small modular reactors, and help to explain the technology in a straightforward way to the public.

The partnership is a nonprofit, public-interest organization advocating for the advancement of science, energy and technology issues.

“We understand the technology, and we know the questions to ask, and we know how to put that in front of the public in a way that’s understandable,” Holman said.

Officials with UAMPS and NuScale said that if all goes to plan, the plant could be up and running by early 2024. But there are many technical, regulatory and financial hurdles still to go, they warned.

Still, McGough and Webb said the site agreement was a significant first step.

“It potentially could be the first (small modular reactor) project in the entire world, so it’s kind of a big deal,” Webb said.

“This is a very big day for us,” McGough said.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth