With the world awash in relatively cheap natural gas, nuclear power is struggling in the U.S.
On July 31, South Carolina Electric & Gas Company announced a halt to construction on two new large nuclear reactors. A key U.S. nuclear player, Westinghouse, filed for bankruptcy in March.
Idaho may play a key role in diverting the U.S. nuclear industry onto a new path.
A couple of weeks ago, Idaho Falls hosted the annual Intermountain Energy Summit. One of the highlights was a talk by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems CEO Doug Hunter. He discussed UAMPS’ proposal to place up to 12 NuScale small modular reactors west of Idaho Falls within a decade, providing enough energy to power more than 400,000 homes.
Kevin Trevellyan of the Post Register reported that Hunter said the SMR project was already competitive with natural gas from a cost standpoint: “It has to meet the price point; it can’t be any more expensive than combined-cycle natural gas. We are there. This technology is competitive with combined-cycle natural gas at today’s gas prices. That’s key for my membership . . . .”
NuScale’s design is generating international interest, which increases the probability of commercial viability. Just last week, the British government asked NuScale and other SMR developers to present their design, as described by The Telegraph, for “crunch talks to meet Britain’s energy demands with new small reactor technology”.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has begun consideration of NuScale’s application for regulatory approval. If granted as expected, the next step will be to build a first full-scale model of the 65-foot by 9-foot reactor at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL). A successful test opens the door to installing the 12 power reactors.
Recently, there was also another significant Idaho nuclear development. On August 10, various dignitaries from the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy and local officials gathered at Idaho National Laboratory to break ground for a $1.7 billion upgrade to the Naval Reactors Facility. This facility will process nuclear fuel from U.S. Navy vessels, in particular carriers and submarines. It will generate more than 300 construction jobs and sustain the existing 1,200 long-term jobs, and cements Idaho’s tie to the nuclear Navy for the foreseeable future.
That brings me to an interesting column last week by Katie Stokes, the Commentary page editor for the Post Register. She discussed interviews with all three GOP gubernatorial candidates with particular focus on the resolution of the current standoff between Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the INL over shipment of about 100 pounds of radioactive material for research. INL believes this material is critical for its research mission.
Wasden has barred such shipments because of long delays in cleaning up large amounts of liquid waste at the INL under the 1995 agreement forged by former Governor Phil Batt.
Stokes spoke glowingly of Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s knowledge: “[His] grasp of the delicacy and intricacy of balancing the future of the Idaho National Laboratory as the world’s premier nuclear research facility and the 1995 Settlement Agreement was, to put it bluntly, astonishing.”
The other candidates were less knowledgeable. Rep. Raul Labrador showed some knowledge of the 1995 Agreement and cited his “good relationship” with Wasden to resolve the issue, but primarily focused his discussion on tax reform, rather than the needs of INL. Tommy Ahlquist struggled a bit. The Post Register noted he wasn’t prepared to discuss the 1995 Agreement but generally backed the INL. A factor for Ahlquist may have been that his interview was conducted early in his campaign, back in May.
Eastern Idaho’s economy is currently strong. A key factor in that strength is the INL. The stands and knowledge displayed by candidates for governor related to the INL and its future will be a key factor in garnering support regionally in 2018.