Idaho National Laboratory (INL), located in Idaho Falls and in the desert to the west, is arguably the nation’s pre-eminent center for nuclear energy research and development.

And INL’s reputation and importance are likely to grow considerably over the next several years as climate scientists, policymakers and conservation groups now acknowledge that little chance exists for the nation and the world to reduce carbon emissions and meet climate change goals without a concerted emphasis on new generation nuclear energy.

This escalating worldwide acknowledgement that nuclear energy is key to preventing the cataclysmic impacts of a dramatically warming earth, add great import to INL’s mission – “. . . to discover, demonstrate and secure innovative nuclear energy solutions, other clean energy options and critical infrastructure.”

INL’s vision, “to change the world’s energy future and secure our nation’s critical infrastructure,” fits perfectly with what is needed to combat climate change and to ensure that the United States stays in the forefront of nuclear energy science, innovation and commerce.

What’s more, INL, along with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), are on track to show the world that clean, carbon-free nuclear energy can be safe, small, affordable, scalable, and can complement variable renewable energy, making wind and solar energy more practical and reliable.

UAMPS, a consortium of 46 community-owned power systems in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming, is exploring the possibility of building the nation’s first small modular nuclear reactor project at INL. The location is ideal, because INL has decades of experience with nuclear research and reactors, and Idaho Falls is a member of UAMPS. INL and UAMPS make great partners.

The project is attracting significant international attention for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, more and more scientists and environmentalists are recognizing that if the country and the world are to adequately address climate change, it’s almost impossible to do it without additional carbon-free nuclear power.

Second, energy leaders are worried that the United States is in danger of losing its leadership in nuclear technology and commercialization, which has major ramifications for the nation’s security and international commerce. China, Russia and India are moving aggressively, deploying new plants and developing next-generation nuclear technology.

The UAMPS project, named the Carbon Free Power Project, helps the U.S. jump ahead in deployment of a new generation of carbon-free nuclear energy that is safer and more affordable, opening the possibility of exporting this new small modular reactor (SMR) technology, created by NuScale Power in Eugene, Oregon, to markets around the world. 

Because of the project’s importance, it has received significant support from the U.S. Department of Energy in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The NuScale reactors planned to be used in the Carbon Free Power Project at INL each produce 60 megawatts of electricity, and are inherently safer than traditional reactors, using natural convention to cool in an emergency, even without electricity or operator involvement.

The project is planned to include 12 small reactors, generating a total of 720 megawatts of electricity. Because the electrical output of each module can be ramped up and down, the SMR project can nicely complement variable wind and solar energy, providing electrical supply when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. 

A recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in collaboration with INL and the University of Madison-Wisconsin, says the challenge of climate change will be more difficult and costly to solve unless nuclear energy is included in the energy mix.

"Our analysis demonstrates that realizing nuclear energy's potential is essential to achieving a deeply decarbonized energy future in many regions of the world," study co-chair Jacopo Buongiorno, associate department head of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Department at MIT, said. "Incorporating new policy and business models, as well as innovations in construction that may make deployment of cost-effective nuclear power plants more affordable, could enable nuclear energy to help meet the growing global demand for energy generation while decreasing emissions to address climate change."

The Union of Concerned Scientists and The Nature Conservancy, both major international conservation groups, also recently released papers noting that combating climate change will be dramatically more difficult without reliance on carbon-free nuclear energy to help replace coal and natural gas plants. The Nature Conservancy said as much as 33 percent of energy internationally will need to come from nuclear plants by 2050.

However, because of cost overruns, safety concerns, and the need for massive amounts of water, it is unlikely that additional traditional, large reactors will be constructed in the United States.

Thus, all eyes are on next-generation nuclear utilizing smaller, safer, more affordable and more flexible reactors – the first of which is planned to be built at INL and be operational by 2026.

INL is engaged in other nuclear research, including molten-salt reactors. But the UAMPS SMR project is the most imminent and viable project in the near-term. It will help keep INL in the forefront of nuclear leadership for the foreseeable future.  

Note: LaVarr Webb knows about this project because he has helped UAMPS deal with media inquiries and communications needs.