SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah energy cooperative sees a future where coal-fired generation is no longer a viable option for baseload power supply and is pursuing a three-pronged strategy that contemplates nuclear power.
The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is in the first phase of development for a small nuclear reactor power plant in eastern Idaho to serve its 44 members in Utah and seven other western states.
Customers are mostly cities, such as Bountiful, Logan, Murray and Blanding that are part of a community-owned nonprofit political subdivision of the state of Utah.
The project, buoyed by about $250 million so far in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, embraces new generation nuclear power delivery by NuScale Technology and is far different from traditional nuclear power plants, according to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.
"They believe very much that these small modular nuclear reactors are dramatically safer than the big, old fashioned nuclear power plants that we are used to," said LaVar Webb, a spokesman for the cooperative.
Each modular reactor has the capacity to generate 50 megawatts of energy, with anywhere from six to 12 reactors envisioned for one of four possible sites at the Idaho National Laboratory, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy and the first place in the world to generate energy from nuclear power.
Webb said the NuScale Technology has generated both national and international interest as the world moves increasingly toward carbon-free emissions, with governments and energy providers hopeful the new technology delivers on its promises.
"There have been substantial grants to both prepare the license applications and build the site," he said. "They obviously want to make sure it is done right and it is done safe."
Each modular reactor is a 76 feet by 15 feet cylinder that would be installed below ground.
"This technology is way different than any nuclear technology that us or the world has seen because it does not have any moving parts," said Doug Hunter, CEO and general manager of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. "It's using conduction and gravity."
NuScale will submit its design certification by the end of the year to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will have to give its stamp of approval for the project to go forward.
Hunter said the cooperative's board members, too, have yet to give formal approval for the project pending completion of this first feasibility phase.
"Here's the crux: the reactors are going to have to be the same price as the option of natural gas," he said.
Hunter, whose business has been energy since 1979, isn't going to bank on a multi-billion dollar project if its municipal members — and hence ratepayers — aren't getting a competitive price on the energy it delivers.
At the same time, Hunter said the volatility of natural gas prices — and the carbon emissions from the fossil fuel — are hard facts that have to be considered.
"I would not ask cities to bet their future on the price of natural gas in the future," he said. "We have to make our decisions based on what we know today."
The cooperative will have to replace 320 megawatts of energy generated from coal-fired power plants when they are retired or are forced to close under the weight of increasingly stringent environmental regulations, Hunter said.
Beyond the pursuit of possible carbon-free nuclear power, the cooperative is emphasizing energy efficiency practices for its customers and encouraging the use of distributed generation via renewables such as solar, he added.
"What we are asking everyone to do is to focus on not wasting kilowatt hours," he said. "It would not be wise to do this if we have not cleaned up our act on energy efficiency."
Hunter suspects the board will make a decision on moving forward with the Carbon Free Power Project by spring next year.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission still has to complete the licensing process — which is arduous and takes place over many years — so the energy project would not be operational until 2024.
There are multiple components of the project that have to be settled, including securing water and ensuring viable transmission of the power, he added.
Jeffrey Barrett, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Energy Development, said the cooperative's project poses exciting possibilities for future power generation.
"What is exciting is a utility provider based in Utah that serves Utah municipalities and Utah customers is on the leading edge of a cutting technology. We think that is fantastic," he said. "There are all sorts of pressures to move to carbon free resources and the modular reactors seem to be a good fit. "
Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems will also work to address any community concerns over the project such as use of water and onsite storage of generated waste, he added.
"We are going to listen to the community concerns because we are community, right? If the community does not want to do it, we won't do it," Barrett said.
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