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Report says new nuclear reactor is risky; utilities disagree

  • FILE -This Sept. 28, 2010, file photo shows the coal-fired Hunter 2 power plant in Castle Dale, Utah. A new type of nuclear reactor that would provide carbon-free energy to utilities in four states in the Western U.S. poses financial risks for utilities and their ratepayers, according to a report released Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 that was immediately criticized by owner of the project and the company developing the reactor. The reactors are part of a broader nationwide effort to reduce greenhouse gases, like those from this coal plant in Utah.(AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

A new type of nuclear reactor that would provide carbon-free energy to at least four states in the Western U.S. poses financial risks for utilities and their ratepayers, according to a report released Thursday that was immediately criticized by the project’s owner and the company developing the reactor.

The report by the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said the small modular nuclear reactor being developed by NuScale Power in Oregon is “too expensive, too risky and too uncertain.”

The NuScale design is the only small-scale reactor to win safety approval so far from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the agency is poised to issue a rule this summer that would fully certify it.

The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a cooperative representing utilities in seven Western states, wants to build and operate six of the company’s reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory as part of a broader effort to reduce greenhouse gases and fight climate change. The first is projected to come online in 2029.

In addition to Utah, utilities in Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico have signed on to receive power from the NuScale reactors, and utilities in Washington and Oregon are considering it, according to the cooperative.

A recent Associated Press survey of the energy policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that a strong majority — about two-thirds — say nuclear energy will help take the place of fossil fuels. Many state energy experts have concluded that power generated from wind, solar, water and other renewable sources won’t be enough to fully replace energy from oil, coal and natural gas.

The new nuclear reactors being developed are far smaller than those in a traditional nuclear power plant. Some use water to cool the core, while advanced reactors use something else such as gas, liquid metal or molten salt. The NRC expects more designs to be submitted.

The report from the institute, which supports renewable energy, said it’s likely the NuScale reactor will take longer to build than estimated and that the final cost of power will be higher than anticipated and greater than the cost of power from renewable alternatives.

“The nuclear industry has been claiming that small modular reactors … are the wave of the future and are essential in the fight against climate change,” report co-author David Schlissel said. “Based on the industry’s long history of overpromising and underproducing in terms of providing low-cost power, we believe that these claims must be viewed carefully and cautiously.”

LaVarr Webb, spokesperson for the Utah energy cooperative, said the report omitted important facts, including the federal government’s strong support for the project. The Energy Department approved a cost-sharing arrangement in 2020 that could provide up to $1.4 billion. The plans called for 12 reactors, but the cooperative said last year that it needs only six.

Webb said that while the authors highlighted construction cost overruns at some large traditional nuclear plants, they didn’t mention that the NuScale modules will be built in a factory and not at a site that could be affected by weather delays.

“There was a lot of misinformation,” he said. “Our members are very supportive of the project and we will go forward as planned.”

Both Webb and NuScale said they were not asked for feedback before the report was published.

“This report provides a wholly uninformed view of the value of advanced nuclear energy technology in meeting our energy needs and climate goals,” Diane Hughes, a vice president at NuScale, wrote in an email. “The report also mischaracterizes NuScale’s costs, does not accurately reflect or examine schedule timeframes and even fails to understand the output.”

Thom Carter, the energy advisor to Utah’s governor, said replacing carbon energy sources such as coal for generating electricity is a “nationwide struggle without an easy answer.”

“We do believe that nuclear power needs to be part of the decarbonizing conversation,” he said after receiving the report.

NuScale signed an agreement this week to explore bringing its small modular reactor technology to Poland. The company says it has 20 tentative agreements with customers in 11 countries.

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