The Idaho Falls City Council on Feb. 9 voted unanimously to approve the city-owned electric utility Idaho Falls Power to continue supporting the Carbon Free Power Project.
The project, which will employ an advanced light-water small modular nuclear reactor by Oregon-based NuScale Power, is to be constructed at the Department of Energy’s desert site west of Idaho Falls. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January certified NuScale’s design for what will be the United States’ first small modular nuclear reactor, the Associated Press reported.
Idaho Falls Power is one of 26 of 27 Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems members that voted last month to continue supporting the project, which is several years away from completion. The show of support comes despite rising estimated costs for both construction and the power the project will produce. An Idaho Falls Power slideshow included several factors driving up costs, including Producer Price Index increases ranging from 25% for electrical equipment up to 106% for carbon steel piping.
UAMPS’ involvement with the project has several “off-ramp” milestones in which participants can pull out. The end of February marked one of those milestones. The project is being funded through a variety of means, including Department of Energy and NuScale funding as well as UAMPS agreements to purchase power from the completed plant.
Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper called the carbon-free power technology a “game-changer.”
“We’ve had decision points (with the project) from time to time and this was a big decision point,” she said. “… This is a decision of consequence that has not just citywide impact, this decision of consequence, as we know, has statewide, regionwide, and it has nationwide, if not global, consequence and I appreciate how much care this council has put into this decision.”
Councilman Jim Francis, who voted to withdraw from the project 19 months ago at an earlier off-ramp juncture, explained his reasoning for voting to approve going forward now.
He said changes to the agreement announced in recent months, including a new budget and finance plan that shifted the primary responsibility to NuScale, the project developer, and away from UAMPS members, which are purchasing the power, was significant as was setting clear targets for the percentage of subscribers and a cap on the cost per megawatt hours.
“There has been enough risk reduction to go forward at this time with our commitment to a potentially game-changing system,” Francis said. “But this is not an open-ended commitment to this project all the way down to the end. We have to conduct a thorough financial analysis in 2023 to see what NuScale and UAMPS have done to make this project viable for us.”
Councilman Tom Hally, the only current council member who was serving when the project first came before the group, said the project’s projected cost increases are in part driven by the risks of pursuing a new way to produce power. He noted that financial risks are not new to power generation efforts.
“We’ve always taken risk and the accountants probably didn’t always agree with the risks we took,” Hally said. “The budget increase for Hoover Dam was probably three to four times that original estimate and nearly 100 people died on the project. Grand Coulee Dam? The same thing … Now the stakes are real high because of carbon. It isn’t just the rates (for purchasing power); the rates won’t mean much if we don’t stop carbonization of our planet.”
Hally also noted that Idaho Falls Power had managed its risk with the Carbon Free Power Project by reducing by half its original power purchase commitment.
John Radford, the council liaison to Idaho Falls Power, talked about “the hundreds, if not thousands of hours” he and other council members have spent learning about the Carbon Free Power Project and noted the city’s longtime role as a leader in producing its own power as well as in partnering with the Department of Energy and Idaho National Laboratory.
Radford said city officials are committed to being a good partner with the lab and the Department of Energy, but he called on federal leaders to provide more support for new nuclear power projects such as NuScale’s to ensure their viability.
“We cannot afford to build a nuclear power plant, we need to de-risk this and, if the Department of Energy is listening and can help us in any way to do that, it will go a long ways for this project to get built. If it’s going to be built by 30 cities in Utah and Idaho, it’s unlikely that happens.
“We can’t afford to bankrupt our utility, so we won’t do that as a council.”
A UAMPS newsletter said Shawn Hughes, the Carbon Free Power Project director, recently met with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy “to further refine the approach to the Limited Work Authorization.”
The work authorization allows the project to start non-nuclear construction work prior to final approval of the combined construction and operating license application (COLA). The newsletter said Hughes also reported that NuScale is focused on the Standard Design Application that has been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The target date for the final acceptance review of the application is the end of this month, the newsletter said.
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