The Logan Municipal Council unanimously voted to continue its participation in a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor project near Idaho Falls — but not without objection from the mayor.
The council approved a sales contract for the Carbon Free Power Project, a partnership between the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and NuScale Energy, based in Oregon.
Right before the vote, Mayor Holly Daines told the council that although she’d sign the contract should it be approved, she does not believe Logan should be involved in the project.
“The council controls the finances, they appropriate money. But the mayor executes contracts,” Daines said. “I would prefer not to be in this project, and the reason is the risk.”
Daines said she thinks the risks of a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor should be taken on by venture capitalists, not Logan’s ratepayers.
“It could turn out to be a fabulous project,” Daines said. “If so, people will replicate it and then we can use that power.”
Daines said speaking with some of the council members one on one, she got the sense that they’d like to subscribe to 10 megawatts of the plant’s capacity. As a compromise, Daines said, she would sign the contract but only at the 5 megawatt level.
Logan is looking to diversify its energy portfolio. It already includes some renewables, but contracts for some of its baseload energy sources — electricity that’s available regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining — are set to expire over the next decade and a half. Nuclear power, which produces no carbon emissions while it’s generating electricity, could be an appealing option.
During earlier stages of the project, Logan intended to be the project’s largest subscriber at 30 megawatts. At a Municipal Council meeting in November, Daines expressed her desire to withdraw from the agreement completely, citing the higher-capacity subscription as one of her worries.
The proposed CFPP nuclear facility would be built at the Idaho National Laboratory. CFPP’s proponents say the small modular reactor design is much safer than existing nuclear reactors, which — barring high-profile disasters in extraordinary circumstances — already have strong safety records.
The design also promises to use less water in its cooling systems than existing reactors, which can impact river ecosystems by slightly raising water temperature downstream. The Carbon Free Power Project is considering buying irrigation groundwater rights for its cooling needs.
There are still chances for the city to discontinue its involvement in CFPP before the plant is projected to start commercial operation in the mid-2020s. One of these offramps is quickly approaching, Logan Light & Power Executive Director Mark Montgomery said, when the project hits its first budget adjustment. Montgomery estimated this offramp could occur in three to four months.
Another step in the process designed to mitigate risk to the project’s subscribers is a planned economic competitiveness test by UAMPS. If the study fails to find that the plant could sell electricity for $65 per megawatt-hour, UAMPS would likely scrap the agreement altogether.
According to a UAMPS preliminary estimate, if Logan subscribed at 5 megawatts and all 720 megawatts of the plant’s capacity were spoken for, from April 2015 to November 2027, Logan would pay more than $29.3 million of the plant’s $4.2 billion price tag.
Peter Bradford, a critic of the project and former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote in a May op-ed that cost overruns have nixed several other nuclear projects, even those promising cost reductions through new construction techniques. Further, Bradford wrote, the economic competitiveness test wouldn’t be independently conducted and would only compare CFPP to a natural gas-fueled plant.
Mike Squires, a UAMPS spokesman, wrote his own op-ed in response, stating that the planned small modular reactors aren’t like the plants Bradford compared them to, and that NuScale is already “ahead of schedule” in its licensing process.
The Municipal Council also unanimously voted to participate in an agreement to allow the Idaho National Laboratory to take one of the facility’s 12 small modular reactor slots and possibly lease another. INL hopes to build one of the reactors for research and development purposes as part of what it’s calling the Joint Use Modular Plant program, or JUMP.
The JUMP reactor would be the first module built and installed, according to INL, meaning the Dept. of Energy would have incentive to improve the process used to build reactors for the Carbon Free Power Project and other projects like it under consideration elsewhere in the nation, hopefully helping keep construction time and costs down.
Council Member Amy Z. Anderson said she grew up near a nuclear power plant in Illinois, which may make her more comfortable with atomic energy than others on the council, as Logan currently doesn’t include nuclear in its energy profile.
Council Member Herm Olsen said in a “pure, clean” world, he wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about nuclear power.
“But I’m even less an enthusiast on coal-based power, and even natural gas power,” Olsen said. “Because I think they are worse alternatives than this particular model. … I’ve looked at this small modular reactor proposal pretty closely and feel like it’s appropriate for us to invest in it.”
While the Carbon Free Power Project is considered a next-generation reactor design, it still generates power with the conventional nuclear fuel cycle, meaning it uses refined uranium to produce electricity and nuclear waste, some of which can remain dangerous to humans for tens of thousands of years. What to do with that nuclear waste can be a thorny political problem.
“Once that fuel has spent in the reactor and you take it out, that belongs to the federal government at that point,” Montgomery said. “We’ve all heard of Yucca Mountain and all the debacle that’s kind of gone with that political thing.”
Mayor Daines wasn’t the only person to object to the Carbon Free Power Project in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
Cache Valley resident Justin Robinson recently served as vice chairman of Logan’s Renewable Energy & Conservation Advisory Board and is VP of technology for GroundWork Renewables, an engineering firm in the renewable energy industry.
Speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, Robinson summarized his personal opposition to the project in three points:
• It’s fiscally irresponsible: “This is some of the most expensive power on the planet, and the current estimated rate is not set in stone,” Robinson said.
• CFPP is a risky undertaking for a municipal power company because it’s untested technology. “The risk profile is very high for Cache Valley,” Robinson said.
• Nuclear power isn’t actually carbon-free — fossil fuels are burned during the mining and refining of nuclear fuel, as well as transporting and storing nuclear waste.
“The half-life of this material is roughly 100,000 years,” Robinson said.