CORVALLIS, Ore. — Since the 1940s, the Idaho National Laboratory has played a central role in the country’s nuclear power industry.
A plan to build the nation’s first small modular reactor plant at the desert site west of Idaho Falls could put eastern Idaho on the map on a global scale, according to NuScale Power, the creators of the technology.
The plant, called the Carbon Free Power Project, will be the first of its kind in the nation.
The project is going through the federal permitting process now, and construction could start in the next few years.
The power modules can be constructed off-site and shipped into a site, similar to a modular building used for offices and schoolhouses. The NuScale modules are considered safer than traditional nuclear reactors because they are self-contained and require no outside power to shut down and cool down during a loss of power to the station.
“It will become a worldwide showcase,” said Jose Reyes, chief technical officer and co-founder at NuScale Power, in a March 5 interview with the Post Register at the company’s office in Corvallis. “I think you’ll get a lot of folks coming to Idaho to visit to understand how the technology works.”
Last week, NuScale invited reporters from around the nation to tour the company’s facilities in Oregon.
The tour included a system test facility at Oregon State University, where researchers first developed the groundbreaking technology in the early 2000s. The system test facility is still used to simulate the performance and safety features of the reactor during normal situations as well as in unexpected conditions such as an earthquake or tornado.
The tour gave reporters their first material glimpse of how the reactors and the digital nuclear control room at the proposed plant would work, look and feel.
Reporters stepped inside a to-scale mock-up of the upper part of the NuScale power module, including the containment vessel and reactor pressure vessel head, and touched the chilly steel surfaces of the structure. The mock-up provides a full-scale spatial representation of the upper portion of the module and is used largely to practice maintenance of the real thing.
Reporters also had a hands-on experience operating the simulator for the reactors’ control room, located at NuScale’s offices in Corvallis. By using the digital controls, operators can control how much power is generated and respond to any changes or alerts in the system.
The reach of the March 5 publicity event extended beyond the United States. A journalist from Japan’s largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, came along for the nearly three-hour tour.
The Japanese journalist’s presence is just one sign of the growing international interest in the technology.
“We are almost through our design certification process, and we’re already getting Japan and lots of other countries calling us and asking, ‘How does this work? What are the costs going to be like for our country?’” Reyes said.
The first module is scheduled to be in operation in late 2026. The remaining 11 modules are estimated to come online the following year and will give the company a better sense of costs involved.
The Carbon Free Power Project currently is NuScale’s only pending project to build the power modules. The plant will be owned by Utah Associated Municipal Power System and could generate enough power for about 540,000 homes.
Even though nuclear sources can often provide power when other sources fail, its appeal has been small in the United States because of lower-cost alternatives such as natural gas, said Tom Mundy, chief commercial officer at NuScale Power.
Outside the United States, where natural gas is more costly, NuScale’s technology appears to be more attractive.
“We are finding more recently that there is quite a bit of international interest in our technology,” Mundy said.
After nuclear disasters such as the one in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, NuScale’s safety features are appealing to countries looking to have multiple sources of emission-free power.
“For the worst-case accident conditions, the reactor will safely shut itself down,” Reyes said. “The reactors will shut down without any operator or computer action without any … power and will remain cool for an indefinite period of time without having to add water. No other nuclear power reactor does that.”
Once those safety features are on display at the Idaho National Laboratory, Reyes said, “it will be huge for Idaho because it will attract a lot of attention.”