Nov 9, 2023
The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and NuScale Power Corporation announced Wednesday that they would not move forward with a plan to build six 77-megawatt nuclear power modules at Idaho National Laboratory.
The Carbon Free-Power Project would have been “the nation’s first-generation small modular reactor nuclear plant,” according to UAMPS.
The move is a significant blow to the development of what has been considered potentially "world-changing" technology that was hoped would bring thousands of jobs to the Idaho Falls area. A 2016 report from the Idaho Department of Labor estimated construction of a small modular nuclear reactor would create or sustain nearly 13,000 jobs in the local economy with average wages estimated at the time to be between $45,000 and $65,000 annually — $58,000 to $83,000 in today's dollars.
Idaho Falls Power is a member of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and had agreed to purchase some of the power that would be generated by the project.
Idaho Falls City Councilman John Radford, who serves as a liaison to Idaho Falls Power, said the city has actively supported the project.
“Idaho Falls was always an enthusiastic supporter because it was going to be in our backyard, and because of the lab and all the push that we need to bring nuclear power into the modern technology grid that we rely on,” he said. “To be honest, nuclear power is the answer for carbon-free power. We just need to figure out ways to get it built at a price that is attractive to the market.”
In February, faced with rising costs, the city council voted to reduce its share in the project from 10 MW to 5 MW. Multiple cities withdrew from the project in 2020, but others joined in, Radford said, just not enough for the project to proceed.
“Subscription was just a difficult thing to achieve,” he said. “Without subscription then the shared costs weren’t spread effectively, and it was difficult to make that happen.”
In November 2014, NuScale officials hoped the project would be coming online by the end of 2023.
In August 2016, the project's costs were estimated at $2.8 billion and in October 2020 it received a boost when the U.S. Department of Energy announced $1.4 billion in funding for it. But as the years went on, the slow approval process for such projects, compounded by increasing labor and materials costs kept driving estimates for both the construction of the project and the power it would sell higher.
“The thing that hurt it really at the end here was interest rates and the cost of goods to build,” Radford said. “I’m not sure that this project would be ending if the marketplace was different, if we have lower interest rates and cost of goods.”
A January cost estimate from UAMPS estimated the new "total cost of acquisition and construction, including financing" at $9.3 billion.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday reported NuScale Power's shares were down about 35% following the news.
In a Wednesday joint statement UAMPS and NuScale said, “Parties decide to determine to terminate the project rather than continue to incur costs on a project unlikely to move forward. CFPP and NuScale designated COLA submittal in the deadline to reach the subscription target. … Capital expenditures to execute the project would have increased substantially after that date, so the Carbon Free Power Project LLC and NuScale mutually determined that ending the project was the most prudent decision for both parties.”
The city’s agreement with NuScale and UAMPS included provisions for exiting the project.
“City leaders, the (City) Council and (Idaho Falls Power General Manager) Bear (Prairie) and everybody involved knew that there were various offramps and that we always had protections,” Radford said. “We had these offramps to make sure that we wouldn’t overcommit.”
UAMPS consists of 50 members, representing “community-owned power systems in six states: Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming,” its website states.
The proposed projects’ total output would have been 462 MW — enough electricity to power about 350,000 homes. In its original rendition the CFPP was projected to be able to power 540,000 homes, but the project was later downsized by just over a third.
While the cancellation is a disappointment, the decade-long effort to build a small modular reactor at Idaho National Laboratory has brought major advancements in the field.
“NuScale has a design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for their 50 MW (reactor) version and is moving forward with a design certification for their 77 MW version that was going to support the Carbon Free Power Project,” INL Associate Laboratory Director of Nuclear Science and Technology Jess Gehin said. “It was really a first-mover driver to achieve those steps. At this point, no other small modular reactor has achieved those milestones.”
The announcement will not result in any job losses at Idaho National Laboratory.
“We had just a small involvement, so it doesn’t impact any jobs,” Gehin said. “We have a large number of other reactor development demonstration projects that our staff are working on.”
The initial groundwork and research for the NuScale project began with designs for a 45 MW Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor project from 2000 to 2003, a joint initiative between Oregon State University, Idaho National Laboratory and Nexant, a Bechtel subsidiary, according to an INL news release.
Oregon State researcher Jose Reyes and his team continued refining this design and built a “one-third scale electrically heated version as a test facility,” the release said. NuScale acquired the rights to the nuclear power plant design and the facility in 2007.
INL is continuing to drive innovation to reduce the costs and modernize the licensing process to build non-light water reactors more efficiently.
“The National Reactor Innovation Center has an activity on advanced construction to reduce cost of future reactors and develop technologies that reactor developers could apply,” Gehin said. “From that point of view, the design of this reactor is completed. It’s going through its licensing. NuScale, the designer of it, has worked on optimizing its design. We have R&D projects that are looking at how we can reduce the cost of future reactors.”
To get the project to this juncture nearly $1 billion dollars was spent. In January 2018, NuScale CEO John Hopkins said more than $700 million had been invested in the project to that point.
In her January 2016 State of City address, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper struck a hopeful tone for the project.
"That project has the potential, I believe, to change the world," Casper said. "Many eyes throughout the country and throughout the world are watching our progress on this project."
While the Carbon Free Power Project will not see fruition, the project that was publicly announced in 2015 has made significant advancements to commercialize and deploy NuScale’s small modular reactor in the future.
“While disappointing to not see it go forward, there are many projects that are moving forward to deploy small modular reactors ... because of the broad interest in nuclear energy,” Gehin said. “ … We don’t see that this in any way reflects on the small modular technology and its future role that it will play.”
Radford credited the experts designing the reactors and all the partners involved for significantly moving the industry forward.
“We showed the pathway to get through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, how to really use the resources of the lab as a partner with industry and public-private partnerships to see a way forward. I think that will be a legacy of the Carbon Free Power Project,” Radford said.