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Nuclear power is often overlooked in the debates about the electric power sector’s role in climate change. A lot of the debate and discussion focuses on coal-fired power plants. When nuclear power is mentioned, the conversation often bogs down over concerns about cost and safety.
But Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) has found another solution, one it says addresses, and answers, both of those concerns.
UAMPS, a public power agency that provides electricity at wholesale to more than 40 community-owned electric utilities in the Intermountain West, is working with NuScale Power on a project that involves the installation of 12 small modular reactors in Idaho.
“The business model is perfect for public power,” Doug Hunter, CEO of UAMPS, says. Each of the 12 modules will be 60 MW, which Hunter calls “a great size for a public power utility.” At that size, he says, member utilities can buy output by the module. Hunter sometimes refers to the project as a “12 car garage you can park your nuclear module in.”
The scalable aspect of the modular design means that a public power utility does not have to put all the modules in immediately. They could buy in to the project and lock in costs, but install modules as needed, as demand grows.
NuScale plant to be built on site of Idaho National Laboratory
The first commercial 12-module NuScale power plant is planned to be built on the site of the Idaho National Laboratory.
UAMPS in 2016 took a step forward in the development of its Carbon Free Power Project by identifying a preferred site within the boundary of the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory site near Idaho Falls, Idaho. The site selection process was conducted in collaboration with the DOE.
Another public power entity, Energy Northwest, has the option to operate the SMR plant.
Under its contractual arrangement with NuScale, UAMPS set a price cap of $65 per MWh on a levelized cost of electricity basis. If the price goes above that, UAMPS can exit the contract.
Hunter says UAMPS could probably build a gas-fired combined-cycle plant for about $55 per MWh, but the NuScale project is affordable because of the other attributes it offers, such as zero emission electricity, fuel security – the SMR operates for 2 years before needing to be refueled – and a hedge against the potential of rising natural gas prices.
Natural gas prices may be cheap now, but there is no guarantee they will remain cheap. “UAMPS is looking at the project as a hedge,” Chris Colbert, chief strategy officer at NuScale, says. “They want certainty for their pricing. The worse thing is for a city to be faced with a doubling of fuel prices.”
Unlike current large nuclear plants that are preferred to be operated all the time at full capacity, the SMR plant is designed for flexible operations. For UAMPS that means that one of the modules could be used to firm the output from UAMPS’ 60-MW wind farm. That is a huge benefit for UAMPS, Colbert says. And it is likely to be an even greater benefit in the future.
“We believe we will be in a highly renewable world,” Hunter says. With a little bit of dispatchable power, he says UAMPS would be in a good position to have a lot of renewable power.
Hunter noted that one of the cities in the UAMPS system has a 50% by 2030 renewable portfolio standard. Going above 30% renewables could pose problems on the system, Hunter says. “You have to maintain frequency.” Batteries could do that, but “you would have to have a lot of them.” Even if battery costs were to go down another two-thirds, they would still be expensive, he says.
In June, NuScale announced that its small modular reactor can generate 20 percent more power than originally planned without any change in costs. NuScale says the increase in output will lower the levelized cost of electricity of its units by as much as 18%, making them more competitive with other generation sources.
The modules have not yet been run, but Hunter says the uprate makes him “very comfortable” NuScale will hit the $65 per MWh target.
UAMPS began exploring the idea of investing in a low emission generation source in 2000 when there was talk in Congress about introducing legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
“We started looking at large reactors, but the size was too big for the western grid,” Hunter says. In the West there are “strong” and “weak” interconnection areas, Hunter explains. UAMPS is mostly in a weak area where installing a large plant, such as a 1,600-MW nuclear plant, would put a strain on the system.
Transmission, or the lack of it, also limits the renewable energy possibilities for UAMPS members. In some of the more remote areas in UAMPS’ system even building a 10 MW solar facility would require a large investment in transmission upgrades. So even though renewables may be the least cost option in some regions, in more remote areas the transmission upgrades that would be required can make renewables uneconomic.
Hunter says his members refer to the system as “the doughnut” because of the open spaces in the center of the system.
UAMPS looked at some other options, including a highly efficient coal plant, and then visited NuScale in Corvallis, Ore. “They fit our size,” Hunter says. “Building an SMR would be like putting a small coal plant on our grid.”
Colbert says one of the reasons NuScale can compete with more conventional technologies is because of the safety and design features of its SMRs. The design is not only smaller, it is simpler, he says. The design does without reactor coolant pumps or backup generators that would be needed to power cooling devices in an emergency. The units have their own passive shut down and blackstart capability.
Furthermore, in August, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff agreed, primarily based on NuScale’s safety design, that scalable emergency planning zones (EPZ) are feasible for SMRs. In fact, the preliminary findings show that – given the enhanced safety features of SMRs like NuScale’s – the EPZ need not extend beyond the plant site boundary, making them easier to license and increasing their cost competitiveness.
The smaller, safer design also means that the plant would require fewer personnel to operate, Colbert says, and the modular design means that many of the components can be built off site and shipped using conventional transportation options.
Conventional nuclear plants source about 60% of their components from overseas. NuScale is looking at sourcing about 90% of its components in North America, Colbert says.
In April, the NRC completed the first and most intensive phase of the design certification application for NuScale’s technology. It is the first and only SMR design to go through that review process. With an expected design approval in September 2020, that review process is on target to support first SMR operation by 2026.
“The main thing is it is simple. It is not complicated,” Hunter says. “We want to be sure we have a zero-cost option, so our members don’t have to bet the farm, even if there are no greenhouse gas regulations. We can say, ‘this is not costing you any more than a gas plant. It will be a safe harbor.’”
For more information about NuScale and its SMR technology, click here.