NuScale nuclear reactor

One of the 12 small modular reactors could go live by 2026, if approved by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Say could leave taxpayers hung out to dry

A Utah fiscal watchdog group and a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission member are calling on the cities involved in a local nuclear reactor project to back out, citing uncertainty about whether it will ever come together.

“We’re 20 years into the nuclear renaissance now and not one single molecule of carbon in the United States has been displaced by a new reactor,” Peter Bradford, who was on the NRC from 1977 to 1982, said on Tuesday. “That’s 20 lost years and more than $20 billion lost dollars in the fight against climate change.”

Bradford spoke to reporters with Rusty Cannon, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, to criticize the Carbon Free Power Project. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is working with the reactor developer NuScale Power on the plan to build 12 reactors at the U.S. Department of Energy site west of Idaho Falls, helping to power UAMPS members including Idaho Falls as well as providing Idaho National Laboratory with power for research. The other three dozen or so cities that have signed on to take a share of the power are mostly in Utah.

The project’s backers say it will be a climate-friendly source of affordable energy that will help reduce dependence on coal. The next phase is to develop and submit an application to the NRC to build and operate the plant, and the cities that are part of it are supposed to approve the new budget and financial plan by Sept. 14. At this point they also have the options of withdrawing entirely or decreasing or increasing their power subscription level. And withdrawing, Cannon and Bradford said, is what they should do, before they are committed to spending more than $100 million for the next phase.

“Investor-owned utilities have turned down these kind of projects for good reason,” Cannon said, saying other energy sources like coal, gas, solar and wind are more competitive.

Cannon said the project’s initial goal may have been sound, but “the evidence the Utah Taxpayers Association has examined presents a bleak picture.” He said UAMPS only has subscribers so far for less than 30% of the 720 megawatts of power the reactors will produce.

“That is the best indicator we see of why the project won’t succeed in the long run,” Cannon said.

In a response provided by spokesman LaVar Webb, UAMPS said it expects the subscriptions will come, pointing to a study showing a 6,000-megawatt regional energy shortage in coming decades.

“There has been great interest, even excitement, about the project among many western utilities,” the statement said. “As expected, most of them want to see key milestones reached before committing.”

Cannon criticized escalating cost estimates and dependence on federal subsidies, which he said could put ratepayers and taxpayers on the hook if federal support dries up in the future. As of a year ago, DOE had spent about $380 million on the project so far, money that NuScale and to a lesser extent UAMPS had mostly matched, on various aspects of the project, and DOE has committed to spending $1.4 billion on it, according to the Deseret News. Cannon also pointed to rising site acquisition and construction cost estimates, which were earlier estimated at $3 billion but sat at $6.1 billion as of July 2020, according to a recent presentation to the Los Alamos, N.M., County Council.

Bradford pointed to the history of past failed or delayed nuclear projects that have fallen on taxpayers, such as the Vogtle Project in Georgia and the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in South Carolina, as a warning. He said the money that has been spent on nuclear power over the years should have gone to renewable energy instead.

“The savings would have been large, the electricity cheap and the jobs plentiful,” Bradford said. “In an era of reexamined monuments, nuclear history has many lessons beyond the nuclear renaissance to offer.”

UAMPS called Bradford “a long-time anti-nuclear activist who travels the country opposing nuclear energy. He makes the same tired arguments against all nuclear development, no matter how different projects are.” While some cost estimates have gone up, UAMPS said the estimated power costs over 40 years have gone down from $65 per megawatt-hour to $55 now. UAMPS said DOE support for the project shows federal officials view it as important.

“Under both the Obama and Trump administrations and past and current Congresses, national leaders have viewed this project as the gateway to next-generation nuclear energy, to meeting global climate change goals, and to keeping the United States in the forefront of global leadership in nuclear technology and innovation,” UAMPS said. “They view it as crucial to the stability of the electrical grid as more intermittent renewable energy is developed nationwide.”

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