Idaho continues to attract unusual proposals to build commercial nuclear reactors designed to send electricity to points unknown. There have now been three such proposals in the past nine years. One, by billionaire Warren Buffett and his MidAmerican Energy, was spiked soon after it was announced. Buffett’s MidAmerican spent $13 million to determine whether the Idaho site was a good one for a nuclear reactor and concluded it didn’t make financial sense. Another reactor proposal, by Don Gillispie and his Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., flamed out amid federal securities fraud civil charges and more recently a 14-count criminal indictment.
Now comes a newly organized eastern Idaho investment group, Twin Buttes Enterprises LLC, which claims to have selected an 1,800-acre site just outside the Idaho National Laboratory near Howe in eastern Idaho. The group includes a retired INL executive and a local real estate developer. According to the Idaho Falls Post-Register, Twin Buttes presented its idea to the county commission in sparsely populated Butte County, whose biggest town is Arco.
The group says it has an option to purchase the land, but it has yet to try to identify a reactor developer. It also claims to have begun studying environmental, water, transmission and other issues, but hasn’t said what those studies have or haven’t revealed. Nuclear reactors are incredibly thirsty, and if any such proposal were to get more serious, the availability of water in the Arco Desert may well present a huge obstacle.
Why Idaho seems to attract such nuclear proposals is unclear, other than that the pro-nuclear positions among many state and local officials may give the impression of a nuclear-friendly political environment. What is clear is that for the past decade, nobody who has explored the possibility of building a reactor in Idaho has found a way to make it pencil out. If Warren Buffett determined that building a nuclear reactor in Idaho was not feasible, there is little reason to believe this group pitching a reactor in the desert alongside INL will be successful. History is not on the side of these developers. In the history of commercial nuclear power development in the United States, no merchant nuclear power plant has been built by speculators with an option to buy land and without very deep pockets, without a developer to finance the deal, and without a nuclear reactor design approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. So far, this proposal lacks all of those.