SANTA FE, N.M. — Los Alamos is considering the nuclear option.
This time, it’s not about bombs. Los Alamos County is part of a group investing in potential development of small-scale nuclear power as one alternative for meeting future energy needs for the county and its biggest power customer, Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The “small modular reactor,” or SMR, facility by NuScale Power of Portland, Ore., would be located a long way from Los Alamos, at the Idaho National Laboratory.
But a projected 16 megawatts of power – half for the county, half for the lab – would be delivered via the grid from what the county is calling its “carbon-free power project.”
The county has invested $50,000 in a first phase that examined potential sites, as a member of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.
Los Alamos joined up with UAMPS, which has about 45 small-utility members in seven states, to look for carbon-free energy sources for the future. UAMPS and Los Alamos County are among the co-owners of the coal-powered San Juan Generating Plant in northwestern New Mexico, under an agreement that expires in 2022.
NuScale made news earlier this month when it submitted a 12,000-page application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for design of its SMR modules, which would be the first of their kind. Each of 12 modules for the proposed Idaho Falls plant would generate 50 megawatts of power. UAMPS would be the owner of the facility.
NuScale’s self-contained reactor vessels with uranium fuel, about 65 feet tall, could be built in a factory and transported by train, tractor-trailer trucks or barge. The Idaho plant would have 12 modules sitting in 8 million gallons of water. The system circulates water to cool the reactors without the use of pumps.
Getting to the point of building such a facility is years away. The U.S. Department of Energy is encouraging development of the new technology and is taking on the biggest share of the cost of the preliminary work needed to get the Idaho facility to point of licensure for construction.
The SMRs are said to be cheaper and safer than traditional nuclear power plants. The reactors are designed to shut down on their own through natural processes if there’s a loss of external power.
In the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan that took place after an earthquake and a tsunami, back-up generators used to power cooling systems for the plant’s reactors were destroyed, leading to meltdowns in three reactors.
“This is just one option of many that the county is looking at to serve the current and future energy plans,” said Steve Cummins, Los Alamos County’s deputy utilities manager for power production. The county’s biggest customer is, of course, the national lab, which uses about 80 percent of the county utility’s power now.
For its non-lab customers, the utility has a goal of being “carbon neutral” by 2040. The county now has existing hydroelectric power from Abiquiu Lake and El Vado, and a small amount of solar power.
Cummins emphasized that the county’s participation in the NuScale SMR facility is “not a done deal” and that there are several “off-ramps” in the future for the county to leave the project if it becomes too expensive or there are licensing problems.
“The last off-ramp is right before construction,” said Cummins. “That’s the big price tag. That’s billions of dollars.”
The Department of Energy is expected to cover half of about $30 million in upfront costs, with NuScale taking on 25 percent and UAMPS’s members the remaining 25 percent.
The DOE, which is also providing financial support directly to NuScale for technology development, “is very anxious to have a small modular reaction project built,” said Tim Glasco, the county utilities manager.
“They are willing to help out with those up-front costs that would otherwise put this out of reach of small utilities like us and UAMPS as an organization.”
The next step is preparing an environmental impact statement and site-specific work. The Los Alamos County share of those costs is expected to be $850,000 as a member of the UAMPS group, with the national lab covering half of the Los Alamos share under a cost-sharing agreement.
Cummins said the NuScale design, although still needing Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval, is “inherently much safer than traditional nuclear power plants,” noting that the nuclear process shuts down “without any human interaction” if there’s a loss of external power. “Hopefully, it doesn’t require as much safety equipment and back-up redundancy,” he said.
The mobility of the smaller reactor is also a plus, Glasco said. “It makes it a lot cheaper,” he said. Quality control and inspections can be done in the factory. And if a plant is ever decommissioned, the pod-style reactors can be hauled to a disposal or recycling site instead of the large-scale deconstruction that would be required at a traditional nuke plant, he said.
Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group research and advocacy organization, raises doubts about the SMR technology.
“While SMRs may be intrinsically safer, the security considerations and back-end fuel cycle problems remain, and there are still no good answers for some of these problems,” Mello said.
He said it would be better for the county and the lab to invest in solar and other energy sources locally and help develop local business. “If the lab were to invest in renewable energy storage and efficiency, it would do a lot of good for New Mexico,” he said.