Northwest — including Idaho — is a hotbed of nuclear research

Sharon Fisher//July 11, 2018

Northwest — including Idaho — is a hotbed of nuclear research

Sharon Fisher//July 11, 2018

rendering of molten salt reactor
Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor Technology could look like this. Rendering courtesy of Terrestrial Energy.

The next generation of nuclear power is making its way toward Idaho National Laboratory (INL) as two small modular reactors (SMRs) work their way through the regulatory process.

SMRs are smaller than traditional nuclear reactors, but are less expensive to build. Their modular reactor components can be manufactured offsite and then installed as needed, generating power and earning revenue immediately rather than upfront investment first.

INL is working primarily with two companies, NuScale Power, of Tigard, Oregon, and Terrestrial Energy, of New York, on SMR projects. In addition, it has also worked with TerraPower, a Bellevue, Washington-based company chaired by Bill Gates developing an SMR that uses depleted uranium for fuel.

“The Pacific Northwest seems to be a magnet for innovative and traditional nuclear power,” Dr. James Conca, a nuclear expert, recently wrote in Forbes.

The NuScale project is an SMR that uses similar technology to traditional nuclear reactors. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to approve NuScale’s design certification application in September 2020, and its first customer, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), is planning a 12-module SMR plant in Idaho slated for operation by the mid-2020s, said Mariam Nabizad, director of communications. UAMPS provides power to municipalities in five states, including Idaho Falls.

The capital cost for the project is expected to be $2.9 billion. Each NuScale plant will employ 360 people full-time, most of whom will receive an average of $85,000 a year. The facility will also create about 1,200 peak construction jobs, as well as 12,000 jobs in the domestic supply chain for manufacturing 36 modules per year, she said. Citing the Idaho Department of Labor, with direct and indirect labor income and industry sales, the plant’s construction will generate more than $5 billion, she said.

Further down the pike is Terrestrial, which is using molten salt reactor (MSR) technology that is both newer and older – older because MSR was used at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as long ago as the 1950s. Terrestrial is partnering with Energy Northwest, a utility that operates the nuclear power facility at the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Washington, which has the first rights of offer to operate the plant should it be built, said Don Queen, general manager of energy services and development for Energy Northwest.

INL (see box) could be a site for an integral MSR plant, said Jarrett Adams, Terrestrial spokesperson. “The idea is the IMSR technology would be competitive with natural gas,” or about $1 billion for a plant. He didn’t have a figure for jobs other than that it would be “significant.”

photo of Jason Thackston
Jason Thackston

Other Idaho electrical utilities said they would consider nuclear power in their integrated resource plans (IRP), which determine power needs and sources for two years at a time. Idaho Power considered a 50-megawatt SMR for its 2017 IRP, and determined it was not cost-effective compared with other energy sources, but will continue to monitor SMR technology, said Brad Bowlin, communications specialist for the Boise company. “We consider small modular reactor power generation to still be in the R&D phase, and we will monitor the progress and viability of that type of generation in future integrated resource plans,” agreed Jason Thackston, senior vice president of energy resources for Avista, a northern Idaho electric utility.

The advantage of SMRs is they could act as backstops for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which are cheap but intermittent, said LaVarr Webb, a spokesperson for UAMPS.

photo of ed lyman
Ed Lyman

Some safety concerns remain, particularly related to economies of scale, said Edwin Lyman, a Washington, D.C.-based senior scientist with the global security program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, with headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While it’s appropriate for the Department of Energy to fund research on development on new nuclear power technologies, it can’t be done quickly, he said. Vendors, anxious to show their technologies are commercially viable, could be rushing the process, which could be dangerous, he said.

INL is at the forefront of nuclear research

photo of shane johnson
Shane Johnson

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are working on nuclear technology because the U.S. nuclear sector is facing “historically challenging times,” said Shane Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear technology demonstration and deployment in the DOE’s office of nuclear energy. For economic reasons, some plants have shut down early, and there are few new plants in the pipeline because of how expensive large-scale nuclear plants are to build, he said. “SMRs look very promising in addressing the current challenges facing gigawatt-size plants,” he said.

Another advantages of SMRs is more resiliency, Johnson said. “If one goes offline, you don’t lose the entire generating capacity of the site,” he said. In addition, SMRs are more flexible in terms of siting options than gigawatt-sized plants, he said.

Historically, the INL has served as the nuclear testing station for such projects, Johnson said. “It’s a great location, a lot of good folks, and solid technical talent at INL,” he said. “It’s a really good place to demonstrate these kind of technologies before they are put into operation.”

photo of Shannon Bragg-Sitton
Shannon Bragg-Sitton

“It requires a unique facility to do research and development, and the national labs have a unique role in taking these on and transitioning them to the commercial sector,” said Shannon Bragg-Sitton, manager for the systems integration department within the nuclear science and technology directorate at INL, who also serves as the lead for the DOE’s nuclear renewable hybrid energy systems program.

SMRs could also change the way electricity looks, for example with energy generation distributed rather than centralized, Bragg-Sitton said. Excess electricity could also be used for industrial purposes such as desalinization, fuel cells, fertilizer, and ammonia, she said.

The DOE has helped fund the development of some of these SMR projects. It has invested about $226 million in NuScale Power, which the company has more than matched, Johnson said. Most recently, the company received an additional award of $40 million in April, which is expected to be available by early fall when contract negotiations are completed, he said. The DOE also handles siting, Bragg-Sitton said.

Which projects actually become viable is up to the commercial sector to determine, Johnson said. “The department has a very favorable view of SMRs, and their role in the national grid, but it is really going to be the market that decides whether they’re economical,” he said. “It won’t be DOE.”