Dream of suspended mini nuclear plants
NuScale says it stands by its new design-based cost estimate and has long been in contact with regulators about the modifications. “We don’t expect any surprises,” said José Reyes, CTO and co-founder of NuScale. UAMPS spokesman LaVarr Webb acknowledged the uncertainty of the design approval process, but said that the $89 price tag for electricity from the planned Idaho reactors remains competitive, given gas prices. Natural combustion spikes, and because power is always on can help stabilize the grid. He points out that rising interest rates and a supply-chain crisis have increased the costs of all power plants, not just nuclear fission plants.
Despite that optimism, officials in Morgan, Utah, a small town in the Wasatch Mountains north of Salt Lake City, decided to quickly pull out of the project. City manager Ty Bailey said he’s worried about where the community’s energy will come from in the future due to coal shutdowns and the rise of electric vehicles. “Things used to be very groundbreaking,” he said. “The system is stable year after year. And policies have changed that—no political commentary.”
This year, the city realized it had new alternatives to the growing cost of nuclear energy. While the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to help offset the costs of the Idaho plant, it also includes funds to help rural communities start their own energy projects. Bailey wants the city to become more autonomous, installing its own solar panels and overnight batteries.
In this round, Morgan was the only defector, although another Utah city, Parowan, reduced its commitment from 3 MW to 2 MW—just enough to cover the loss of coal power. But the new deal with the utilities, negotiated during a two-day meeting with UAMPS members this winter, puts the project under a ticking clock. It included requirements that the price be held steady at $89 per megawatt-hour, and—most worrisome for utilities wanting the project to succeed—that the project be at least 80% subscribers next year. If it doesn’t reach that threshold, the towns will be reimbursed for most of their expenses so far.
At this point, the utilities have invested relatively little of their money in the project, but that will change in 2024 when the project begins applying for site-specific building permits, followed by construction. reality. To get the project fully registered, the team is talking to utilities elsewhere in the Northwest, where NuScale is competing with other SMR startups, including TerraPower is backed by Bill Gates, recently signed a viable agreement with PacifiCorp, a private company. UAMPS’ Webb said he was optimistic about where the talks would go.
In Los Alamos, Garcia hopes that trust is in place. As the county coal contract’s end date approaches, he has a deal for 15 MW of “definite” power from a combination of wind and solar for less than half the price of a nuclear project. But that’s only about a sixth of the county’s needs, and he doesn’t expect to see similar prices again.
Without nuclear, he worries the county will have to slow down its decarbonization plans. “We might have to really invest in one unit of natural gas to close the gap until something else comes along,” he said. Now, the county council has voted to formalize their electricity rate increase for the long-planned NuScale plant, from 1.8 MW to 8.6 MW. Garcia hopes it will help encourage other utility companies to seize the opportunity to spark a nuclear renaissance.
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