By Anne Hedges
On October 20, 2022, there was a meeting in Colstrip to discuss the idea of placing experimental small scale nuclear reactors at the site of the coal-fired power plant. While some folks argue that “advanced nuclear” is a great solution to the climate crisis and will help provide “baseload” power, there are a number of serious problems with those arguments and with putting this unproven technology at Colstrip.
First, “baseload” power is a concept from last century. Theoretically, baseload power plants provide a consistent level of power at all times. But today’s energy system is more complex than it was in the 1900s when utilities could turn on a fossil fuel power plant and let it run around the clock, spewing millions of tons of climate changing pollution into the air. Over the last 20 years, utilities and clean energy developers have made unprecedented technological advances to manage the energy system, balance the use of many different types of electricity generating resources, lower costs, and decrease reliance on fossil fuels. Baseload is no longer what utilities demand; utilities such as NorthWestern Energy are clear about their needs – they need “energy capacity” or ways to manage load on hot July days or cold days in February.
Second, the type of nuclear technology that is being pitched does not exist yet. It is not likely to be commercially available for at least a decade, if ever. Scientists say we have until 2030 for significant climate action, largely because our climate-changing emissions are cumulative – they stay in the atmosphere for centuries. We don’t have time to wait for undeveloped and untested nuclear technology to prove itself. It would make more sense for cash-strapped Montanans to invest in currently-available clean energy and wait to see if this technology actually works before investing our hard-earned money in a nuclear experiment.
And that leads to the whopping cost of nuclear power. Traditional nuclear power is the most expensive type of commercial power generation and the proposed smaller reactors are following suit. An Oregon company working to create one type of small scale reactor in Idaho, NuScale, is developing one of the technologies being floated for the Colstrip site. NuScale recently told Utah municipalities (who have already invested $6 billion) that the cost of power will not be $58 per megawatt-hour as originally projected. Instead, it will be closer to $90-100 per megawatt-hour! That price tag would be even higher if it weren’t for the significant tax advantage that nuclear projects will receive from the new Inflation Reduction Act. Wind and solar projects paired with storage technology are a fraction of that cost. Perhaps these high costs are why NuScale’s project is reported to only have 25% of the customers it needs to finance the project.
There are other serious impediments to putting a nuclear plant at the Colstrip site. Coal ash contamination at the Colstrip plant must be fully cleaned before a nuclear project can be located at the site, according to a study by the Idaho National Lab (INL). Unfortunately, the INL’s analysis projected that cleanup of Colstrip would be completed within 18-30 months; no cleanup plan for the Colstrip site has ever projected an 18-30 month timeframe. Instead, cleanup work is projected to take decades.
Then, of course, there are problems with acquiring enriched uranium that has been coming from Russia in recent years. For these new smaller reactors to succeed, the U.S. needs to develop a uranium supply chain and enrichment process. In the past, these mining practices have disproportionately impacted Tribal communities who have expressed concern about energy production moving in this direction. Although some proponents of nuclear energy claim that there will be no waste and the reactors will be built to recycle their fuel, the technology to do so does not exist yet.
The Colstrip plant and community need real world solutions that are affordable, safe, proven, protective of the climate and water resources, and can utilize the skills of the existing workforce. Montanans are already saddled with high electric bills that will continue to grow if NorthWestern is allowed to build more methane gas plants and expensive nuclear plants. Better to wait and let someone else pay to answer all of these questions before saddling Montanans with astronomical energy bills to pay for a technology that may not actually pan out.
This article was published in the Dec. 2022 issue of Down To Earth.