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County hears update on small-scale nuclear power pilot project

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By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos County has until April 1 to decide whether to invest $500,000 to $3 million into a small-scale nuclear power project that has been in the works for two years.

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The plan would be to install the nuclear power system at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls and the county would purchase power from the project.

The Carbon Free Power Project is a nuclear power project that is in the planning stages for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems by NuScale Power.

Officials from Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and NuScale Power presented the plan to Los Alamos County Council and the Board of Public Utilities Thursday.

The main part of the project will consist of 12, 50-megawatt light water, nuclear reactor modules designed by NuScale, which plans to build the project in Idaho. NuScale plans to have the reactors online and plugged into the national power grid by 2025.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory has also expressed interest in joining the group, but the lab is still in talks with the Department of Energy.

Thursday’s meeting was all about the county’s involvement.

NuScale officials answered many questions about the safety and design of their project.

“We can take 12 of these – or up to 12 – and put them in a single reactor building,” Christopher Colbert, chief strategy officer for NuScale power, told the council and the Los Alamos Board of Public Utilities about the reactors. “The building will be embedded in the ground. “That allows us put in a very low profile to so its susceptibility to attack or any kind of aircraft impact is greatly lessened.”

A pool of water will surround the reactor modules.

“In the case of an emergency where you have lost all power and you have no circulation… that pool of water is sufficient to cool all 12 small module reactors for an unlimited coping period,” Colbert said.

Colbert also said the new reactor plant will use convection, conduction and gravity to drive the coolant that cools off the nuclear fuel, eliminating the need for many mechanical parts. He also said the project will be built using modular building techniques.

“All of that is going to be factory fabricated and brought to the site and assembled on site,” Colbert said. “It eliminates a lot of the large processing you have to do with respect to welding, moving and handling materials much simpler.”

Residents had questions – with some raising the specter of Three Mile Island and Fukishima, two nuclear facilities in two different centuries that became unstable and dangerous due to manmade error and natural disaster.

“Three Mile Island. What it basically came down to was all the computer safeguards worked. The computers were the problem; they did not believe the computers. They kept shutting of the computers, until they almost had a catastrophic meltdown,” resident Greg White said. “I know you talked about having some systems where you said the humans won’t have to react. Do you have any kind of system that will lock out the humans in an emergency so they can’t screw it up so the computers can fix the problem?”

“All I can say that for the NuScale design, we start off with for safety, you indeed do absolutely nothing. There isn’t a decision to be made,” Colbert said. 

According to Colbert, the smaller scale reactors and NuScale’s technology have made it possible for less to go wrong with the system.

“With respect to safety and making sure that the fuel is maintained cool and in a safe state, nothing needs to be done,” Colbert said. “That’s because we have a design that has very few parts, valves and we’re able to demonstrate that there’s only one safe position for those valves. When you lose power to them, they go into a safe position. They do not need to be moved into another position to maintain that safety.”

The core of the project will be 12, 50-megawatt light water nuclear reactor modules designed by NuScale.
Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems wants Los Alamos County to be one of the 34 customers it needs to fully fund the project.

The company is asking Los Alamos County initially for $500,000 to reserve a spot as the project gets designed, developed and built. County officials plan to have more public meetings before a final decision is made.

“The decision to sign the (contracts) gives the member the ability to preserve the option to participate in this project if further development demonstrates the prudence of doing so, a statement in UAMPS’ talking points memo said. “In the immediate development term, the first $6 million of additional development costs will be subject to 100-percent reimbursement.”

The $6 million will be shared by all the members of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. The project expected to be built and be online by 2026. It will be built in Idaho.

The cost of the resource for Los Alamos County will be between $45 and $65 a megawatt hour. The cap will be at $65.
Councilor Antonio Maggiore wanted to know what would happen to the county’s power rates if another community in the 34-member group defaulted.

UAMPS Rep. Mason Baker said that community’s share would get distributed among all the other partners.

County Council Vice President Chris Chandler wanted more meetings and public involvement to happen before a decision is made on the county’s participation.

“This whole kind of outline on what the expectations of the county were not described to the county in any great sense, and I’m a little disappointed,” she said.

“I view this as an extremely important, because it’s financially significant, and there’s risk involved. I want as much participation by the community so they understand so they choose to decide. I didn’t see a lot of stuff that I think citizens would be interested in knowing.”