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New reactor would make old risks worse

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Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) has picked out land within the boundaries of the Idaho National Laboratory where it wants to build and operate a small modular reactor (SMR) by 2024. A company called NuScale is finalizing the design right now.

Whoa! What’s happening?

Nuclear proponents promised a “nuclear renaissance” in 2001. But a shifting energy market all but stopped new, large reactor construction and is now forcing unprofitable reactors to close. So the industry began touting small modular reactors. Developers hoped SMRs’ lower initial purchase price plus the potential for mass production would launch the new designs. Any hope for an American SMR production line supplying the world (and reaping profits) seems to have faded, but the federal government has never failed to shore up nuclear power.

NuScale, a Corvallis, OR, company mostly owned by Fluor, is designing a small modular reactor, and the Department of Energy has chipped in $225 million for the design so far. NuScale’s SMR would, if built, consist of as many as twelve small reactor modules with a total output of about 540MW electricity. The plan is that the reactor would be built on INL’s public land and be owned by UAMPS, a 45-member energy collective. Energy Northwest, which operates a full-sized nuclear power reactor in Richland, WA, would operate the proposed SMR.

SMoRes Image

Think of small modular reactors as radioactive S’MoRes.

The people of Idaho shouldn’t be fooled by the lower initial purchase price of NuScale’s SMR. Nuclear power costs a lot of money, uses a lot of water, and produces nuclear waste. Per unit of electricity, SMRs use more water and produce more spent nuclear fuel than traditional large nuclear reactors. Even with money saved through safety shortcuts, producing electricity in an SMR will cost as much or more than in a full-sized reactor.

More water: Of all the ways to make electricity, nuclear power generation is the most water intensive. The only reason SMR proponents can claim their reactors use less water is because they are smaller. NuScale officials acknowledge their SMR design is even less thermally efficient than traditional reactors. It might use as much as 25% more water to produce the same amount of electricity. If the reactor is built, water users downstream from INL would have yet another reason to worry about the Site’s impact on the Snake River Aquifer.

More spent fuel: SMRs use more fuel to produce a unit of electricity because more of their fuel surface is exposed to transfer the reactor core’s heat to the surrounding water. That means the proposed reactor would produce intensely radioactive spent fuel at a faster pace and with a higher percentage of plutonium in it. A final repository for the spent fuel already in Idaho is decades away.

More cost: The primary driver for SMR development is profit (with risk going to nearby communities and, almost certainly, federal taxpayers). But the lower cost claims are based on proprietary information and are not necessarily accepted by industry experts. It might not seem that most Idahoans need worry about UAMPS’ electricity costs. After all, the only people here who would use the power are the 27,000 customers of Idaho Falls Power. But SMR developers, including NuScale, are proposing cost-cutting measures that will cut safety margins as well. The Fukushima disaster spun out because there was no electricity to run the pumps for the water that cooled the reactors. NuScale claims its passive design is inherently safe and it doesn’t even need pumps, let alone emergency generators. NuScale has also pushed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to shrink the emergency planning zone all the way down to the facility fence line. But if an accident happens, our entire region will be at risk.

How you can help

NuScale plans to apply for design certification from the NRC by the end of the year and apply for a construction and operating license by the end of 2017 or early 2018. NRC’s process will take about 39 months, and construction could begin in 2020. Or the Snake River Alliance, with your help, could stop the whole costly plan.

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