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Two bills that would facilitate nuclear energy development in the state are cruising through the Capitol, and Montana Free Press is investigating what these measures could mean for Montana’s energy future. The first installment of this two-part series looked at House Bill 273, which proposes significant changes to how the public can engage in nuclear development decisions. In Part II we explore emerging nuclear technology that some Montana lawmakers laud as a smaller, safer and more affordable source of energy than the nuclear power plants of the past.
At the same time the House was reviewing a bill sponsored by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, to remove restrictions on nuclear development, the Senate was at work on Senate Joint Resolution 3, which directs the state to study advanced nuclear reactors. The resolution appears well-positioned to pass — halfway through the session, SJ 3 has garnered unanimous support in the Senate.
Sponsor Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, becomes audibly excited discussing the measure. He said he sees modern nuclear technology as a way for Montana to send electrons to the energy-thirsty markets of the Pacific Northwest by tying into the high-voltage transmission lines leading out of Colstrip.
Gauthier said he became interested in modern — and much smaller — nuclear reactors when a constituent brought them to his attention as a possible replacement for the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, the productive future of which is saddled with uncertainty. He said he sees the technology as a carbon-free energy source for the future that could help the state meet its power needs while preserving some existing jobs and infrastructure in Colstrip.
“It’s a great opportunity for Montana to explore this technology,” he said. “I truly do believe that this is our future across the country.”
Gauthier is particularly interested in a company called NuScale, based in Portland, Ore., that’s garnered more than $1.3 billion from the federal government to advance its small modular reactor, or SMR, design. It’s the only company that’s received approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for that type of design — a significant milestone on the journey to market.
House Bill 273 would lay the groundwork for nuclear development in Montana — and take voters out of the mix.
Broadly speaking, SMRs are factory-made nuclear reactors that produce fewer than 300 megawatts of energy. That gives them a smaller footprint than older nuclear plants — about 1/16 the size, according to Gauthier. Russia and China have a few SMR’s that are operational, and dozens more are in design and licensing review across Asia and Europe.
NuScale uses a pressurized water technology that was first developed about 70 years ago, and incorporates it into a much smaller package for use in systems that can be scaled according to need. The company’s reactors will be powered by uranium that’s been mined, processed into nuclear fuel rods and placed inside the reactor. Once nuclear fission has been activated in the reactor, a nuclear chain reaction is triggered, releasing a tremendous amount of heat that’s used to turn pressurized water into steam. The steam turns turbines to generate electricity.
Each 75-foot-tall NuScale module will produce 77 megawatts of energy. That’s enough to power between 54,000 and 61,500 homes, according to Caleb Brooks, a professor in the University of Illinois’ Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering. Up to 12 modules can be used in one facility. NuScale estimates it will take three years to construct a new plant with the technology, but says it can take advantage of some of the existing infrastructure, such as cooling water delivery systems, in coal-fired power plants like Colstrip. The company also says some existing workers at coal plants could be retrained and employed. That’s one reason the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Boilermakers Local Lodge No.11 and the Montana AFL-CIO support SJ 3.
NuScale is currently working on a pilot project in Idaho Falls, Idaho, spearheaded by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, or UAMPS, a public power consortium of 48 member utilities across the West. NuScale expects that plant to be operational in 2029, but anticipates delivering its first module to UAMPS, or another customer, by 2027.
Brooks said much of what makes NuScale’s design so appealing is its scalability. A utility company can put one module into operation and start recovering costs relatively quickly, he said. When additional funding becomes available, more modules can be added. That can mitigate some of the high capital costs associated with nuclear energy, Brooks said.
Nuclear reactors tend to run best and most efficiently when they’re generating a consistent output, and that’s one of the reasons they’re less suited for markets with highly variable energy demands. NuScale’s technology is considered to be more agile than most in that regard because it allows operators to take individual modules online or offline as needed. That means they can pair well with intermittent energy sources like wind or solar.
The brainchild of former Oregon State University nuclear engineering professor Jose Reyes, NuScale’s SMR is also designed to be simpler than current nuclear technology. The company claims its reactors will cool down on their own in the event of a power failure, so no electric pump or human intervention is required to prevent a meltdown. As Liam Darby, author of a study on NuScale’s technology appearing in Case Studies in the Environment, puts it, it’s “not the old-fashioned, hit-the-big-red-button” scenario if something unexpected happens.
Much of the debate about the environmental impact associated with nuclear energy is focused on what to do with the spent fuel. Some kinds of nuclear fuel can remain radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years. The U.S. has yet to arrive at a long-term solution for re-using or storing spent fuel, creating a contentious political issue that’s spanned decades.
As is the case with larger-scale traditional nuclear plants, spent fuel from SMRs remains a “significant issue,” according to Darby.
NuScale’s plan is to store used fuel underwater in a stainless-steel lined concrete pool located onsite for at least five years. They say the pool is designed to withstand “a variety of severe natural and human made phenomena” like earthquakes and aircraft impacts. After the five-year period when the used fuel is both hottest and most radioactive has elapsed, it’s moved to a stainless-steel canister surrounded with concrete that’s designed to contain the radioactivity.
The United States doesn’t have a permanent underground repository for high-level nuclear waste, so those concrete containment vessels generally remain on-site or near the plant they came from. A 33-year-old effort to create such a long-term storage repository northwest of Las Vegas is still subject to heated debate.
Gauthier said he’s excited about the possibility of recycling spent fuel, which would both cut down the amount of new fuel that would need to be mined and reduce storage requirements. Japan, Germany and France recycle their spent nuclear fuel, but the U.S. does not. Brooks said that’s partially due to regulation. Laws meant to ease concerns about nuclear proliferation dating back to the Carter administration prevent fuel from being recycled here. Cost also plays a role.
“If you have a lot of fuel on hand, and if the fuel itself is relatively cheap, the cost-benefit [calculation] of recycling it is less attractive,” Brooks said.
Brooks added that nuclear power generation doesn’t produce a lot of used fuel. All of the spent nuclear fuel produced in the United States since the 1950s would cover a football field to a depth of 10 yards.
That’s because nuclear fuel has a high degree of energy density. Brooks said it would require one ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas to produce the amount of energy that can be generated by one pellet — about the size of an inch length of index finger — of nuclear fuel.
Another question hanging over nuclear energy development is the price of building a new plant. It’s not uncommon for new construction costs to exceed $1 billion. Concerns about cost increases led several cities that had committed to participate in NuScale’s demonstration plant in Idaho Falls to pull out of the multi-billion-dollar project last year.
NuScale told Montana Free Press that once production is rolling on their product, it anticipates the facility construction cost to be about $2,850 per kilowatt of producing capacity for its largest, 12-module iteration. For comparison, new construction of a natural gas plant averaged about $837 per kilowatt of capacity in 2018, and wind plants clocked in at $1,382, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Brad Molnar, a Republican senator from Laurel, told MTFP that cost will be an important consideration as the state plots its energy future. He said the study Gauthier is spearheading should involve the Public Service Commission, because it doesn’t make sense to conduct the study without landing on a cost-per-megawatt estimate.
Gauthier knows that nuclear is by no means the least expensive energy source, particularly if calculations are based on a strict dollars-and-cents equation.
“It’s still cheaper to have natural gas, but of course natural gas produces carbon,” Gauthier said.
The carbon footprint associated with nuclear energy is part of the reason Gauthier’s resolution garnered such an uncommon mix of proponents during its hearing before the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee. The Montana Environmental Information Center registered its support for the measure alongside regulated utility NorthWestern Energy and conservative policy group Americans for Prosperity. No opponents testified.
“There is a really, really important debate going across the country about whether this is a good idea, and I think it’s important for Montana to get ahead of it,” said Anne Hedges, MEIC’s director of policy and legislative affairs, when registering her support. In a later conversation with MTFP she stressed the importance of decarbonizing the energy sector to slow climate change and affirmed Montanans’ ability to make a “good decision, and a durable decision” about the role nuclear energy should play. Part of that decision-making involves information gathering, which is why she supports the study, she said.
Given that nuclear plants currently make up half of the clean energy in the country’s portfolio, and many older nuclear plants in the U.S. are slated to be decommissioned soon, Brooks said there is a degree of urgency to the discussion. He said nuclear energy has considerable momentum right now, given federal lawmakers’ generous funding for research, recent advancements in technology and evolving public opinions.
“Most of the younger folks I talk to, they just want to see a clean energy portfolio, and I think they’re much more receptive to how rapidly innovations can happen,” he said. “Nuclear technology was really spawned out of the ’50s, and the rotary phone was spawned out of the ’50s. If we still had to use a rotary phone, of course we could still get the job done, but it’s nothing like the phones we have today.”
As for states like Montana that have laws creating hard barriers for nuclear development, Brooks said many of those initiatives actually garnered the support of the nuclear industry when they were written: They served to remind the federal government of its responsibility to address the spent fuel issue.
It’s not yet clear if Montana’s 1978 law requiring voter approval before a nuclear energy plant can be built in the state will still be on the books next year. The Legislature is still deciding the fate of HB 273, which would strike that law and remove nuclear projects from the purview of the Major Facility Siting Act.
Sen. Molnar has been asked if he’d carry HB 273 when it’s heard in the Senate, but he said he has reservations about the measure.
“By and large, I’m really hesitant to overturn a [voter] initiative,” he said, adding that the order of operations seems a little off to him.
“First you do the study, then you take action,” he said. “You don’t take action and then do the study.”
As of March 4, both HB 273 and SJ 3 have been transmitted to the Senate and House, respectively, for review. Hearing dates before those chambers’ energy committees have not been set.
This article was updated March 5, 2021 to clarify NuScale’s construction cost-to-production capacity estimates.
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