A group of cities in the Western U.S. have voted to move ahead with a new nuclear project that could help revolutionize how clean power is generated in this country—despite sharply rising costs for the project.
On Tuesday, a group of 26 cities in Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, and Nevada said they wanted to continue with their investment in what could become the U.S.’s first cluster of small modular reactors. NuScale, the company behind the project, told the group in January that costs for the energy generated by the planned project had jumped more than 50% since it last calculated its estimates.
Nuclear power is a crucial form of baseload energy that can provide reliable, carbon-free electricity at a low operating cost. But large-scale nuclear projects in the U.S. have traditionally been infrastructure behemoths, often taking decades to construct with specialized parts made for each plant. That has made it difficult in recent years for nuclear plants to compete with the plummeting costs of natural gas and renewables, as plants struggle to recoup their up-front investment. Small modular reactors, known as SMRs, can theoretically cut the costs of larger reactors by using factory-made parts that are shipped to the site.
The design for NuScale’s SMR was approved in late January by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; it’s the first SMR design ever approved by the U.S. government, and only the seventh reactor design to be approved. The test project is set to be built in Idaho, and the six-reactor, 482-megawatt project would come online in 2030. The coalition of cities involved in the Idaho project are known as the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a network of local utilities and other agencies that have signed up to become the first customers of the nation’s first-ever SMR.
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The cost increases NuScale informed the cities of in January were due to pretty basic stuff around supply chain management and inflation. Materials all over the world are generally more expensive than they have been in past years, and SMRs, while smaller than traditional reactors, are still huge infrastructure projects. Still, NuScale said it had revised its estimates for the price of the power up so much that WIRED reported last month that some cities would go from paying $58 per megawatt-hour of power to $89; the project’s total costs now sit at around $9.3 billion. It’s an uncomfortable echo of other nuclear projects in the U.S. that have experienced ballooning costs. The UAMPS coalition saw three cities already drop out of the agreement with NuScale in 2020, after the company previously revised its costs upward.
“The project will support our decarbonization efforts, complement and enable more renewable energy, and keep the grid stable,” Mason Baker, the CEO and General Manager of UAMPS, told Reuters. “It will produce steady, carbon-free energy for 40 years or longer.” Baker said that UAMPS thought the project was still a good idea because the cost increases were due to supply chain materials used in other projects, not specific to nuclear technology.
The decision to move forward with the project from UAMPS is a vote of confidence in the future of the industry—and an illustration of the difficulties some cities face in figuring out where to get power in the future, as dirty energy moves off the grid.
Jordan Garcia, a deputy utilities manager for the city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, told WIRED that parched hydropower plants and retiring coal plants means the city will have to scramble to find another source of renewable energy to meet its decarbonization goals if the NuScale plant doesn’t come through.
“We may have to actually invest in a natural gas unit to bridge the gap until something else comes along,” he said.