The Dream of Mini Nuclear Plants Hangs in the Balance

NuScale says it sticks to cost estimates based on its new design, and has long been in touch with regulators about revisions. “We don’t expect any surprises,” says Jose Reyes, NuScale’s chief technology officer and co-founder. UAMPS spokesman LaVarr Webb acknowledges the uncertainties surrounding the design approval process, but says the $89 power price from the planned Idaho reactors remains competitive, given the high price of natural gas and because always-on power can help stabilize the grid. Rising interest rates and the supply chain crisis have increased costs for all power plants, he points out, not just the ones that split the atoms.

Despite this optimism, officials in Morgan, Utah, a small town in the Wasatch Mountains north of Salt Lake City, decided to quickly exit the project. City Manager Ty Bailey says he’s concerned about the community’s future energy source due to the retirement of coal and the rise of electric cars. “It was very upsetting the way things used to be,” he says. “The system has been stable year after year. And the policies have changed that — no comment on politics.”

This year, the city realized it had new alternatives to the rising costs of nuclear energy. While the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to help offset Idaho plant costs, it also includes money to help rural communities start their own energy projects. Billy wants the town to become more self-reliant, installing its own solar panels and batteries that keep power overnight.

In this round, Morgan was the lone defector, though another Utah city, Parowan, cut its commitment from 3 megawatts to 2 megawatts — just enough to cover the loss of its coal power. But the new agreement with the utilities, negotiated during a two-day meeting with UAMPS members this winter, puts the project under a ticking clock. They include requirements that the price remain fixed at $89 per megawatt-hour, and—most troublingly for utilities that want the project to succeed—that the project be at least 80 percent subscribed by next year. If it doesn’t get that far, cities will recoup most of their expenditures to date.

At this point, the utilities have invested relatively little of their money in the project, but this will change in 2024 as the project begins to receive site-specific building approvals followed by actual construction. To get a full take on the project, the group is talking to utilities elsewhere in the Northwest, where NuScale is competing with other SMR startups, including Bill Gates-backed TerraPower, which recently signed a feasibility agreement with PacifiCorp, a private utility. UAMPS’ Webb says he’s optimistic about where negotiations are heading.

At Los Alamos, Garcia is hoping the confidence is in place. With the county’s coal power contracts about to expire, he struck a deal to get 15 megawatts of “fixed” power from a mix of wind and solar power at less than half the price of the nuclear project. But that’s only one-sixth of the county’s needs, and he doesn’t expect to see similar prices again.

Without nuclear power, he fears the province will have to slow decarbonization plans. “We may actually have to invest in a natural gas unit to fill the gap until something else comes along,” he says. For now, the county council has voted to formalize the long-planned increase of its share of NuScale’s plant power, from 1.8 megawatts to 8.6 megawatts. Garcia hopes it will help encourage other utilities to seize the opportunity to spark a nuclear renaissance.

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