BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. Department of Energy officials and an energy cooperative with members in eight states are negotiating a plan that could lead to the construction of small commercial nuclear reactors at an eastern Idaho federal nuclear site.
"There is a lot of space and the early indication is that there is water and there is good (power line) transmission," said LaVarr Webb, company spokesman. "The local leaders seem to be supportive and the (Department of Energy) also seems to be supportive."
Webb said he expected the company and the federal agency in the next several months to sign a site-use permit, which he described as not a final decision, but a good-faith agreement to move ahead with locating the nuclear reactors at INL.
The company said if it decides to move forward with the small nuclear plants, they likely wouldn't be operational before 2023.
The Energy Department on Wednesday confirmed that the area is being considered but offered no details. The agency contracts with Battelle Energy Alliance to run the Idaho National Laboratory.
"We'd certainly love to be the host" of the small modular reactors, said Todd Allen, the lab's deputy director of science and technology. "If we can support small modular reactors, we'd be glad to do that."
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.
"A small modular reactor is not dissimilar to the small nuclear reactors that have been operating in our nuclear submarines for over 40 years," NuScale Chief Commercial Officer Mike McGough said.
He said the small reactors are designed to be safer than conventional nuclear plants by being able to shut down without human involvement in the event of a disaster.
"The plant shuts itself down and cools itself off with no operator action and with no water and no source of electricity," he said.
He said the company is in the process of completing an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the reactors. He described the application as a 12,000-page book that will undergo a 40-month review. If everything advances, work on the modules could begin before 2020.
The small reactors are less expensive, McGough said, than conventional nuclear reactors. The cost for 12 small modular reactors is about $3 billion, he noted, compared to about $15 billion for a conventional plant. Part of the cost savings comes from building the modular reactors at a factory and then trucking them to a location, he said.
Cost is a big concern for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, said Webb, noting that the group is relatively small compared to larger power suppliers in the region. The city of Idaho Falls, just east of the Idaho National Laboratory, is one of its 45 members in eight Western states.
Because of the modular reactor design, he said the company could initially buy just a few of the reactors and then add more as power demand increases in future years. He said the company owns portions of several large coal plants with life cycles that end in 2025.
The company "is looking at, if all goes well and this goes forward, looking at replacing that coal electricity with the emission free, clean nuclear generated electricity," Webb said.