The company which supplies most of southeastern Idaho’s electricity, PacifiCorp, recently announced it will switch out of coal and meet most of its needs with solar and wind, plus batteries for use when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. One Western utility after another has made a similar announcement this year, including Idaho Power. Our question today is: with such stunning abandonment of coal for renewables, is there still a need for nuclear?
Utilities in many Western communities are saying yes. So is the world at large.
Public utilities such as in the city of Idaho Falls will soon be able to purchase electricity from a cluster of small, simplified modular reactors that shut themselves down when unsafe and dispose of spent fuel in ways never imagined when the nuclear age began. Fittingly, they will be built where nuclear energy first generated electricity, lighting the town of Arco in 1953.
The flight to renewables is coming on fast. PacifiCorp, with nearly two million customers, will install 30,00 megawatts of wind and 3,500 megawatts of wind. Excel, with three million customers from Minnesota to Texas, will become 80 percent renewable by 2030. West coast utilities are on an even steeper curve.
Utilities are choosing wind, solar and battery storage in spite of the abundant natural gas because those sources are cheaper, cleaner and popular with customers. So why would utilities nonetheless buy some electricity from small reactors in Idaho?
The reactors in question will be built by NuScale, an Oregon company using a design conceived by an Oregon state physicist to address the three greatest vulnerabilities of nuclear: safety, disposal of spent fuel and long-term cost.
Each reactor generates 60 megawatts. Reactors will typically be installed in clusters and buried beneath a few acres of earth, use passive principles to shut down as needed while using less water for cooling. By building modularly in factories, costs can be reduced. Because they are small, NuScale plants can be installed where no transmission lines exist or at remote locations, for example, to desalinize seawater.
The utilities in question — more than 30 in Idaho, Utah, California, Nevada and New Mexico — have until 2023 to purchase from a cluster of 12 reactors generating 720 megawatts of electricity (720,000 homes). Final approval by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected next year, with start-up perhaps in 2026.
They will use nuclear-generated energy to replace coal. With nuclear as a base they can then add solar and wind without the cost of batteries. Levelized cost is expected to be under $50 a kilowatt-hour which is double the current cost of solar and wind but less over 60 years than the cost of natural gas, the alternative baseload.
Let’s be clear: NuScale’s first reactors are made possible by federal support — $380 million since 2013 — to go with substantial private capital. Utilities will receive $63 million for licensing and siting, which surely influenced their decision. This will not be repeated.
In Canada, Russia, China and many other places, similar fourth-generation reactors of various designs and sizes are being developed. Why?
The answer is simple: climate. Coal is the major reason the planet is hotter and fourth-generation nuclear is one clear remedy.
Coal may be phasing out in the United States but this is not true elsewhere. China and India burned more coal last two years than ever before and coal shipments over water increased 2 percent worldwide last year.
Countries developing nuclear aren’t crazy. China is the world leader in solar, wind, batteries and conventional nuclear. Yet China cannot get out of coal without substituting small nuclear. India’s need is even direr.
Overall, the world economy will triple to $292 trillion dollars by 2050. Renewables cannot meet that demand alone and have their own downsides. Every environmentally acceptable resource must be marshaled to meet the greatest challenge of our time.
NuScale’s prime market will likely be abroad. It recently signed a partnership with a Czech utility, adding to relationships in Romania, South Korea and France.
One of Idaho great contributions to the world was to invent a source of electricity, which today supplies 55 percent of all the non-fossil fuels used in the United States. The American navy depends on technology developed here.
Yes, mistakes made on the Idaho desert; in the early days creating dangerous conditions that demanded remedies. Those mistakes have split eastern Idaho from the rest of the state for decades. Vigilance over the safety of nuclear energy is entirely justified, then as now.
The Idaho Falls Post Register, where I was publisher or president for 27 years, took the need for action seriously. Our paper supported Govs. Andrus and Batt as they gained state control over the Department of Energy. We urged a serious measure of state control, often over local opposition.
However, the Batt Agreement was signed in 1996. Nine billion dollars have been spent on cleanup since then. Thousands of eastern Idahoans have lost their jobs, or will soon lose them, because that cleanup mission has been completed, with just one major task remaining.
With state regulation in place, with significantly improved technology and with climate becoming more dangerous to us every day, might NuScale enjoy a measure of the trust in Idaho lost during the last generation?
Understanding all this is deeply important. The climate challenge demands a higher level of honesty and accountability from all of us. And for taking action. Consider resetting your thinking — taking a new look — when the words “nuclear” and “Idaho” appear together. As our planet grows warmer while needing ever more energy, consider the future of all mankind.