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Idaho eyed as potential site for small nuclear reactors

The U.S. Department of Energy has announced an agreement with an energy cooperative that could lead to the building of small commercial nuclear reactors at an eastern Idaho federal nuclear site.

The agency granted a site-use permit to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or  UAMPS, to access the 890-square-mile area containing the Idaho National Laboratory to find a spot to build what are called small modular reactors.

“UAMPS will seriously be traveling across the INL and looking at specific locations,” company spokesman LaVarr Webb said Feb. 18.

A site will likely be picked out within two months, Webb said. However, additional steps in the process, such as an environmental analysis if the company decides to move forward, mean the small modular reactors likely won’t be operational before 2023.

The Energy Department said the agreement advances President Barack Obama’s plan for non-carbon producing energy. “Today’s announcement is a part of the Department of Energy’s ongoing commitment to strengthening nuclear energy’s role in America’s low carbon future,” Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the agency, said in a statement.

Oregon-based NuScale Power would build the reactors that can individually produce 50 megawatts. Additional reactors could be built as power demands grow, with up to 12 reactors producing 600 megawatts.

Experts say the small reactors are designed to be safer than conventional nuclear plants because they can shut down without human involvement in the event of a disaster.

The cost for 12 small modular reactors is about $3 billion, NuScale has said, compared with about $15 billion for a conventional nuclear plant. Part of the cost savings comes from building the modular reactors at a factory and then trucking them to their locations.

There’s a lot of interest from members of the energy cooperative as well as other energy providers in building the small reactors, Webb said. The city of Idaho Falls, just east of the Idaho National Laboratory, is one of its 45 members in eight Western states.

“Anecdotally, there appears to be enough interest that all 12 would be built,” Webb said.

Nuclear waste from the small reactors would be stored at the site in protective casings that could withstand earthquakes, he said.

Some of the factors for site selection include access to a workforce, access to transmission lines and the availability of water. “UAMPS is currently working with a water attorney to determine water possibilities,” he said.

The Energy Department would have to agree to any selected site, and the agency could reject a site if it determines it conflicts with work being done at the laboratory.

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