BY PETE SHEEHEY
Los Alamos County Councilor
In April 2018, County Council and the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) voted to continue the county’s involvement in the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), a planned small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear generating station at Idaho National Laboratory. The project is being pursued by UAMPS, a group including us of 47 public power providers, of which 35 are participating. The 2018 decision added approximately $100,000 to Los Alamos’ investment in CFPP, for a total today of $258,000.
In the next two weeks, BPU and Council will decide whether to pledge up to an additional $1.26 million to maintain our 11.186 MW share in the CFPP (projected to come online in 2030) until the next decision point in April, 2023. This amount is roughly 1% of the county’s electricity production revenues between now and April 2023.
The county supplies about 80 MW of electricity to LANL, and 20 MW for the town’s needs. In order to minimize our contribution to global climate change due to CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, we have a goal that by 2040, the town’s 20 MW will be generated from carbon-neutral sources, such as hydroelectric, wind, solar, and nuclear.
The county generates hydroelectric power at Abiquiu and El Vado when water is available, 1 MW from the solar array over the old landfill, and has a contract with Uniper Global Corporation that will provide 15 MW of renewable energy starting in 2022. When renewable energy is not available, the Uniper Global power will be from non-renewable market sources. Although solar arrays provide cheap energy when the sun is shining, utility-scale energy storage (such as batteries) is expensive. To provide for days or weeks of storage pushes the cost of “solar plus storage” well above the cost of competitive “base-load” generation such as combined-cycle gas generators, which cost around $55 per MW-Hr.
Nuclear power does not put CO2 into the atmosphere. The CFPP’s SMR design has the potential to be vastly safer than present day nuclear, featuring “passive-safe” self-cooling without the need of operator intervention or auxiliary power. This safety advantage should result in cost reductions. Nuclear power, which can run 24-7, is a good complement to intermittent renewable power. Because of the modular nature of the CFPP, with 12 60-MW units, it is more adaptable to being brought up and down in complement to renewables than conventional 1000-MW nuclear plants.
Our small investment to date, in addition to contributions from 34 UAMPS partners, the major contractors NuScale and Fluor Corporation, and DOE, has brought the SMR CFPP design close to completion. The design is planned to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next month for projected NRC Design Certification by December 2020.
Along with the technical/certification progress of the last 2 years, UAMPS also negotiated a new multi-year commitment from DOE to provide $1.4 billion toward the project (approximately 23% of the total plant cost). This includes DOE and NuScale covering 85% of the cost of Combined Construction and Operating License Application (COLA) Preparation, to be completed in April 2023. Of the UAMPS 15% contribution, our share would be up to $1.26 million.
For this investment, we would remain in the project until April 2023, when the COLA will be submitted to the NRC. By that time there will be increasingly detailed cost estimate calculations available on whether or not the CFPP’s target price of $55 per MW-Hr can be achieved. That also provides time for negotiations with DOE and the federal government for further financial support (my hope is that DOE would pay for the first of the 12 reactor modules to be built and tested).
There remains technical and political risk in this project. Although a 1/3-scale mockup of the self-cooling thermal hydraulic design of SMRs has been built and tested, a full-scale reactor has not yet been built. Politically, continued federal support is critical, in order for small UAMPS utilities like us to bear a proportionately small share of the financial risk.
I believe that the prospect at this point of 40+ years of reliable base-load carbon-free power at $55 per MW-Hr would be a benefit that far exceeds the risk of $1.26 million. We should invest in solar and other renewables, but the CFPP is the present most promising means to compensate for the intermittency of renewables. At the next decision point in 2023, we will have to consider obligating larger amounts of money, but we will then have more detailed technical, economic, and political knowledge of the project’s prospects, and a new evaluation of any competitive carbon free options.