For the fourth time in 30 years, the city is working to increase its ownership of electricity generation. We’ve bought 3 megawatts of wind east of town at about 30 percent capacity factor, it provides less than 1 percent of our electricity. There have been serious, but unsuccessful, attempts at adding hydro and coal-generated electricity.

Steve Piet

Steve Piet

The new proposal is to buy 10 MW of a nuclear plant proposed west of town on the western edge of the Idaho National Laboratory site. At 90-95 percent capacity factor, it would provide about 10 percent of our electricity.

I suggest two study phases, which might lead to decreasing or increasing our share. The first phase would use a diverse set of electricity consumers. The second phase could be an independent professional assessment.

There are reasons to both support and oppose this proposal. I recently talked about this to Friends for Learning.

We need to own more of what we use. The city’s use of electricity is growing. We are going to need new generating capacity just to keep providing the current quarter to a third of our electricity that we get from our four dams and the small stake in the windfarms. The proposed plant would operate in 2026 or 2027, before the Bonneville Power Administration contract must be renewed in 2028. (We buy 60 percent of our electricity from Bonneville Power Administration.)

The technology appears sound; it will be both safer and more economic than current nuclear power plants.

The regulatory progress appears sound. Next year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should certify the design. That might warrant increasing our share. Unlike government facilities, neither waste nor eventual cleanup of the site would depend on government; users will pay fees as electricity is generated.

But increase our share only if we monitor and resolve issues.

Although the technology is sound, this design hasn’t been built before and there is associated risk of cost escalation. We are protected against cost increase before the final go/no-go decision in 2023 but what about during construction? At 10 percent of our total electricity supply, cost escalation would be moderated by the rest of the portfolio but we must be vigilant.

A second risk is potential legal wrangling over the Idaho-Department of Energy Settlement Agreement. I don’t see how it would apply as this would be privately generated used nuclear fuel, not government-owned waste brought into the state. Still, we can anticipate legal challenges and judge-shopping by opponents. The Idaho attorney general should clarify.

A final risk is the acquisition of water rights. The city said publicly in August that the project was looking at “dry” cooling towers as opposed to “wet” to reduce water usage.

These three risks must be addressed. I’m confident the city could find a diverse set of volunteers to take a hard look.

Steve Piet is a nuclear engineer who worked at Idaho National Laboratory for 31 years.

Recommended for you