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The Pitfalls of Nuclear Power

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President Trump signed a budget bill for 2019 that includes $1.3 billion for nuclear energy research and development. That money will fund a whole raft of bad ideas, many right here in Idaho.

$100 million will go toward 12 small modular reactors (SMRs). A chunk of that will go to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) to pay for the engineering, design, and licensing of 12 nuclear power reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission could approve the project in 2023 and the first reactor is supposed to go online in 2026. SMRs have all the flaws of typical nuclear power reactors and even make some of them worse! We can and should stop this project.

Nuclear power reactors won’t stop GLOBAL WARMING.  Claims that nuclear power can play a key role in addressing climate change and that SMRs could be particularly effective do not hold up. Nuclear power simply costs too much and takes too long to make a difference. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the “dramatic cost reduction that SMR proponents describe is unlikely to materialize with this first generation of light water SMRs, even at ‘nth-of-a-kind’ deployment.” That means they can’t help provide a “new carbon-free wedge on the critical time scale for the next several decades.”

Speaking of MONEY,  UAMPS’s current projection for the cost of its nuclear power plant is $4.2 billion. Starting with its first research grants, the project has gotten hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. UAMPS management is expecting us to continue to cover about half the cost. Future taxpayer subsidies will include federal nuclear production tax credits and state and local sales and property tax breaks.

Is there a MARKET? Nearly all the project’s electricity would be sold outside of Idaho. The original assumption was that the buyers would be UAMPS member utilities in surrounding states. So far utilities have only subscribed to 180MWs of the reactors’ 720MWs – and those that signed up still have two more chances to pull out of the project. INL has committed to buying 120MW. That leaves 420MWs without a buyer.

Both of Idaho’s US Senators are sponsors of a bill that would leverage the Pentagon’s buying power to solve this market problem and allow the government to buy more nuclear energy. Here’s how: By law federal agencies can only sign 10-year power purchase agreements. That’s not long enough to cover nuclear power’s sky-high capital costs. If this bill becomes law, federal agencies, including the military (the government’s largest energy consumer), will agree to buy nuclear-generated electricity for 40 years – and pay way above market rates! This bipartisan brainchild is called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act.  

With SMRs, there is more than just money at stake. Nuclear power is a WATER hog. Of all the ways to make electricity, nuclear uses the most. UAMPS’s 12 nuclear reactor power plant would consume 18,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Snake River Aquifer. Per kilowatt, that’s 25% more water than even full-sized nuclear reactors use. The Snake River Aquifer is already over-allocated and remains the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 people. How will SMRs affect water rights in Idaho?

And of course, nuclear power means more NUCLEAR WASTE!  UAMPS would use 40% more enriched uranium fuel than regular reactors to produce a kilowatt. That means it would produce more intensely radioactive spent fuel. The spent fuel would contain a higher percentage of plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear bombs. There is no final repository for spent fuel so the waste would stay right here in Idaho.

Building nuclear power reactors in Idaho is a bad idea. Please join the Snake River Alliance to oppose commercial nuclear power reactors at INL.

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