Idaho Falls is poised to play a pivotal role as a leader in the fight against global climate change, with a chance to provide cheap, clean power to the city’s residents and businesses for decades to come. The city should not waiver.
The Carbon Free Power Project, under which Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems will construct a small modular reactor designed by NuScale, promises to bring the next generation of nuclear power to our backyard. Like the city’s existing stock of hydropower plants, which prior city leaders had the foresight to invest in, the small modular reactor project wouldn’t release carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses.
More importantly, the Carbon Free Power Project is the first working example of a model of clean power generation that could be expanded widely to fight against climate change, the greatest threat to humanity’s future. The project’s design has cleared major regulatory hurdles at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and all signs indicate that the project is viable.
Most UAMPS members remain fully committed, though the cities of Logan and Lehi, Utah recently withdrew. Idaho Falls should not follow Logan’s lead by reducing its megawatt commitment to the project, a decision the council could face as early as next week.
If the City Council reduces its commitment to small modular reactors, the greatest damage will be the signal it will send.
The project’s success relies on eventually selling subscriptions to all the power that will be produced by the nuclear plant. As with stock sell-offs and bank runs, there is the risk that the mere perception that other investors aren’t confident can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If the project’s home city, a city whose economic success more than any other in the country is tied to nuclear energy, is seen to be hesitant, what message will that send to all other cities and utilities involved in the project?
As much or more than any other city in the nation, this is the town that nuclear energy built. And it’s a city with a history of making large investments in public infrastructure that pay off down the road.
Idaho Falls’ decision generations ago to build its own hydropower plants has kept electricity prices among the lowest in the nation. (As the city has grown, however, it has had to purchase an ever-larger share of its power supply on the electrical supply market as its size has outstripped the city-owned generation capacity, a problem the Carbon Free Power Project is tailored to address.)
The public investment model still works, for those smart enough to pursue it. The small city of Ammon’s innovative fiberoptic buildout strategy, which flipped the economic model by providing public ownership of the fiber lines and allowing service providers to compete for customers, has produced a system with some of the best service in the nation at some of the lowest prices.
There are some financial risks involved in the small modular reactor project, a first of a kind innovation, but they can be contained effectively if the project looks like it’s in danger.
UAMPS’ deal allows its members to increase or decrease their megawatt subscriptions, or withdraw entirely, at any time before construction begins. Idaho Falls would remain on the hook for its percentage of the up-front costs incurred before withdrawal. These costs aren’t small, but they would hardly be a budget-breaker for Idaho Falls Power, which had over $150 million in total assets and nearly $30 million in short-term assets as of its most recent annual report.
And a cost-sharing agreement with the Department of Energy, which will further reduce the city’s exposure to risk, is expected to come soon.
Given the city’s solid position, ability to contain future risks and the tremendous potential benefits of the project, both globally and for ratepayers, the Idaho Falls City Council should stay the course on the Carbon Free Power Project.