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Smaller Utah towns were banking on the promise of nuclear replacing coal. Now what?

A substation at Intermountain Power Plant on June 22, 2022, in Delta, Utah.
Rick Bowmer
A substation at Intermountain Power Plant on June 22, 2022, in Delta, Utah.

An energy project that was slated to help many Utah communities transition from fossil fuels to nuclear power has been canceled. For those cities, it means they’ve got to find other ways to fill that gap in their long-term plans for transitioning to carbon-free electricity.

Brigham City in Box Elder County — population 19,963 — was one of the communities expecting to add the power of the atom to its grid by the end of this decade.

“We were really excited, so it's disappointing,” Brigham City Mayor D.J. Bott said. “But the risk was always there.”

The technology embodied in the project — small modular nuclear reactors — is new, he said, so the endeavor was never a sure thing. But he said it was worth a shot.

As the state’s coal plants phase out with the national push to lower greenhouse gas emissions, more cities will be trying to find alternatives. Renewable sources account for 10% of Utah’s total power generation as of 2022, up from 3% in 2000. During that time, generation from coal power has dropped from 94% of the state’s energy mix to 57%.

The Carbon Free Power Project was a joint venture of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and technology company NuScale Power Corporation. It officially launched in 2015, and construction had been expected to begin at the facility in Idaho Falls in late 2025, with the first reactor operational by 2029. But the project couldn’t get enough communities to sign on.

With fewer cities to share the load, Bott said, costs ended up rising — especially as inflation began to adjust the projections for building the infrastructure in the coming years.

“That's what really drove, I think, the termination … was the inflation of construction,” Bott said. “It was definitely climbing.”

Brigham City was anticipating getting around 37% of its power from this nuclear project. In the short term, Bott said, the project’s closure means the city will be talking with more consultants about how to formulate its energy mix. The city gets some small portions of its current power from wind and hydroelectric, he said, but most comes from fossil fuels.

For the long term, he’s still optimistic that other similar nuclear projects will emerge to take this one’s place.

“We're just biding our time until somebody comes up with that technology and moves the needle,” Bott said.

Since solar and wind power aren’t reliable to generate 24/7, he said, cities will continue to need to mix in things like natural gas, geothermal and nuclear to provide a steady foundation.

Santa Clara power director Gary Hall was hoping his city could count on the project “as a good, reliable base resource.”

“So we're going have to find something to replace that,” Hall said.

The Washington County city of 8,123 residents was expecting the project to provide around 20% of the city’s power by 2030, he said. Santa Clara has already started to replace some of the power it historically got from coal as the plants shut down, he said, but it still gets a majority — 57% — of its electricity from natural gas.

While the city doesn’t get any solar power right now, he said, it’s signed up for a project that’s slated to begin providing 7.5% of its power load by the end of this year. As it fills the void left by the canceled nuclear project, it’s looking to add more solar, wind and geothermal power.

Like Bott in Brigham City, the cancellation hasn’t stopped him from hoping that new nuclear tech can be part of that mix, too.

“It's a great technology. … It's reliable. It runs 24/7. That's what we need to replace the coal,” Hall said. “So I think nuclear is about the only answer that's green.”

Santa Clara plans to continue to band together with other UAMPS communities and look for other potential energy sources, Hall said. For smaller communities — some members have populations below 500 — having more collective power to negotiate new deals is a big benefit.

“As a group, we can make purchases and get a lot better deal,” Hall said. “So yeah, we are kind of all sticking together.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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