NuScale Small Modular Reactor

Michael Downs, NuScale Senior Reactor Operator, speaks to audience members about NuScale's small modular reactor at the Idaho Falls Power Energy Center on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. The SMR developed by NuScale would be 76 feet tall and be fully self-contained, being able to operate without additional safety backups like the water pumps that failed during the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 because their SMR is a closed loop system that can cool itself.

The city of Idaho Falls, Idaho National Laboratory and other regional stakeholders are still moving forward with a project to build 12 small nuclear reactors west of town.

The Carbon Free Power Project is a collaboration between NuScale Power, the Oregon-based company designing the reactors, and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, many of whose members have committed to take some power from the reactors and are helping to pay for the project. The U.S. Department of Energy is also providing funding for it; it contributed hundreds of millions, matched by the participants, toward some of the initial development, siting and licensing costs, and in October it announced another $1.4 billion in funding, which was a key part of keeping the project affordable for the more than 30 participating cities and power systems.

The plan is to build 12 small modular reactors, producing 720 megawatts of power, or enough to power an estimated 540,000 homes, between them, at the U.S. Department of Energy's desert site west of Idaho Falls. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the proposed design in late summer. The first is expected to come online in 2029, the rest in 2030.

The project's boosters view it as a clean and affordable source of power that can help reduce the region's dependence on coal, while its opponents, including nuclear power skeptics and the fiscally conservative Utah Taxpayers Association, have highlighted the risk to the taxpayers and ratepayers who are funding the development of a new technology with no guarantee of success, pointed to already-increasing costs and questioned whether the project will succeed.

In some ways, as 2020 ends the project seems to be coming together, with federal approval for the design and funding that UAMPS CEO Douglas Hunter called a "tremendous vote of confidence in (the Carbon Free Power Project) by the Department of Energy."

“It is entirely appropriate for DOE to help de-risk this first-of-a-kind, next-generation nuclear project," Hunter said. "This is a great example of a partnership with DOE to lower the cost of introduction of transformative advanced nuclear technology that will provide affordable, carbon-free electricity all over the country and the world. This project is much bigger than UAMPS itself."

However, seven cities have decided to drop out for now rather than approve the project's new budget before an October deadline, raising new doubts about the future of the project, which depends on the participation of cities and power companies that have committed to paying some of the costs now and taking some of the power when the project is done. Beaver, Heber, Bountiful, Murray, Lehi, Logan and Kaysville, all in Utah, have suspended their commitment to the project for the time being, while the Idaho Falls City Council voted to cut its commitment in half. 

"I have very serious reservations about this project," said Councilman Jim Francis. "I don't take it as an automatic success. I believe there are still significant technical and financial elements that are … uncertain at this point and need to be addressed."

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.