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How ‘Dirty’ are ‘The Dirty Dozen’?

Reprinted from Boise Weekly, Xavier Ward

If it’s approved by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NuScale modular nuclear reactor system will be one-of-a-kind. That’s not hyperbole, the 12 modular reactors planned for Eastern Idaho’s Idaho National Lab would be the first application of modular nuclear reactors in U.S. history. At this point, the technology only exists conceptually.

NuScale Reactor
Photo by Ron Schwane

In its present state, nuclear power is dispatched from a single reactor, outputting a firm amount of energy into the power grid. The NuScale project would output 720 megawatts at full force, but the actual output can be controlled based on the need of the grid, NuScale officials said.

While those proposing the project laud it as the future of dispatchable nuclear power, environmentalists and nuclear skeptics have branded the project “the dirty dozen,” saying it poses unnecessary risks when the capacity to use renewable energy is not only safer, but cheaper. The Snake River Alliance, based in Boise, has launched a campaign against the project.

So far, NuScale has hit all of the marks, and is up for preliminary approval in September, according to reporting by the Idaho Falls Post Register.

NuScale’s Brand New Toy

“Our SMR (small modular reactors) will be the first to have received approval of this design,” said Tiffany Austin, a communications specialist for NuScale power, a nuclear reactor design company out of Portland, Oregon.

If the project does get the green light from the NRC in September, the first reactor will go live in 2026, with the remaining 11 coming online in 2027, according to a statement from NuScale VP of Marketing and Communications Diane Hughes.

Small Modular Reacotr
One of the 12 small modular reactors could go live by 2026, if approved by the NRC.

The power produced from the small modular reactors would then be sold to customers around the region. The first customer is the Utah Associated Power Systems, which has customers across Utah and Nevada, with one client in California and another in Idaho.

NuScale pitches developing and deploying the cutting-edge reactors in terms of their economic impact as well as its impact on the power grid. According to Hughes’ statement, the project will be an economic boon, creating around 300 permanent jobs with salaries averaging $85,000. It will also add a significant bump to Idaho’s gross domestic product over the construction period, according to the statement.

Overall, NuScale supports renewable energy, and sees its Eastern Idaho project as a way to add a consistent, carbon-free alternative to the energy market. The reactors output steam, not carbon emissions, and with a variable output, the small modular reactors can make up what renewable energy does not in terms of firm, dispatchable load.

“That’s currently not an option at all today,” Austin said. “NuScale is very clear we are a complement to wind, solar and hydro.”

While the project is a NuScale effort and operation, Idaho National Lab will host and monitor it. George Griffith, a researcher at INL and overseer of NuScale’s operations at the lab, said it’s like NuScale has a 99-year camping permit on the lab’s grounds.

“We’ve been sort of helping as needed with that product,” he said. “It’s a commercial project that will be monitored by the NRC.”

In Griffith’s opinion, INL is the perfect place for this new technology, as the lab has decades of experience monitoring and operating nuclear reactors.

“The real benefit of that is we’ve been doing this for 70 years and we have 52 reactors, so we know a lot about our site. We’re very confident about the knowledge we have about it,” he said.

Much of the fear around nuclear energy is unfounded, Griffith said, but has its roots in the post World War II and Cold War Era, when the line between nuclear weapons technology and power was fuzzy. While that fear has subsided some, it’s still present, he said.

“I think way back in the beginning, there was a concern crossing over between weapons and nuclear power,” he said. “When they started there wasn’t a clear differentiation between commercial and military purposes and that concerned a lot of people. That fear, the connection between those two, that would be a big deal if they were really joined.”

Incidents such as Three-Mile Island, in which a nuclear reactor melted down in Pennsylvania; or Chernobyl, where a nuclear reactor exploded near Pripyat, Ukraine, didn’t improve the public’s level of confidence in nuclear technology. However, modern reactors are extremely safe, Griffith said, and in the wake of those disasters, American regulatory standards for nuclear energy have become far more rigorous.

“The more educated people become about it, the more accepting people are about it,” he said. “I think in the market, as they succeed on deploying this unit here, there are a number of places that would be interested in deploying these reactors locally, where they’re at.”

The energy market needs clean, dispatchable power, he said. If you ask him whether he wants wind, solar, hydro or nuclear, Griffith would tell you: “I want all of the above.”

“This new generation of reactors is sort of designed to fit in with that,” he said. “The fact that it’s 12 smaller units allows you to customize your output to match what the demand is on the grid. … I want all of the above in the appropriate amounts to get the best system possible.”

It Has to Go Somewhere

Sitting right above the Snake River aquifer, which provides drinking water for much of Southern Idaho, INL keeps close watch on its waste, Griffith said. Contaminating the aquifer could be catastrophic for Idahoans.

In terms of processing the waste that comes out of the reactors, the bundles are set to cool in massive pools of water contained within the facility. Once those are cooled, they are taken out of the pool and moved into what is called “dry-cast storage,” where it is encased in massive cement blocks.

“They’ll have to be pulled out and put into a dry-cast storage,” Griffith said. “These are amazingly robust products. … they’re essentially immune to outside forces.”

The long-term solution for the waste is somewhat up in the air at this point, but there are two main options for it, Griffith said.

One such option is storing it deep underground, the main project for which is Yucca Mountain, a federal nuclear storage initiative in Nevada, which is presently on hold. The deep salt mine keeps the waste away from civilization, and Griffith said the other option is reprocessing the waste, which is not considered economical at this time.

Some of the elements processed in a reactor can decay to a safe level within hundreds of years. However, other elements may take tens of thousands of years to fully break down.

“We haven’t quite solved which one is going to be the solution right now,” Griffith said. “These bundles can go into the dry-cast storage and not be hot enough to cause trouble after five to 10 years. … If you were to wait until you could walk up and give one a hug, it would be some hundreds of years before that would be OK.”

Reprocessing the waste takes some effort, though it’s not impossible, said Brian Jaques, an assistant professor in the Micron School of Material Science and Engineering. Jaques researches nuclear technology, and is personally a proponent of nuclear energy. He said that as nuclear technology continues to develop, it’s possible that reactors could become more efficient, even self sustaining. For now, however, the waste has to be stored.

“When we pull that fuel out right now, we just store it because it has mechanically degraded and it has isotopes in it that are challenging to handle,” he said. “The new technology of reactors allows for a closed fuel cycle where the fuel can burn more completely.”

As it stands, only roughly 4% of the full potential of nuclear fuel is used in a reactor, then discarded, which is typically after three to five years. The fuel, once it degrades to a certain point, emanates a different level of atomic energy, which is why the current reactors do not have the capacity to process it.

“As soon as there is an economic reason to do so, we have the capabilities to reprocess the fuel and put it back into a usable form and more completely burn the fuel,” he said.

The Dirty Dozen

While many in the nuclear industry have lauded this project as a step in the right direction, some on the environmental and conservation side have serious reservations about not only the project’s safety, but its viability as an energy source. Holly Harris, the executive director of the Snake River Alliance, said not only is the project unnecessary in terms of power need, but it is needlessly expensive, too.

“This kind of nuclear technology doesn’t even fit into the equation; it’s too expensive,” she said.

Harris noted that Idaho Power does not have the NuScale project listed in the Integrated Resource Plan which forecasts its power load, as enough power is generated by existing sources. Nuclear plays a marginal role in Idaho Power’s deliverable load already, with wind and solar individually making up more than six times what nuclear does.

“You can get a wind farm operating next year, we can get a solar farm operating next year,” she said. “[Renewable] is supporting Idaho—it’s supporting Idaho communities.”

From Snake River Alliance’s position, the NuScale project is a new variation of an old experiment, and Idaho is the guinea pig. It’s also time-consuming, and Harris noted that the NuScale project kicked off in 2008, and still hasn’t seen physical development.

“Nuclear technology is still a dream. This kind of technology has been sitting there in labs for decades,” she said.

To Harris’ mind, nuclear makes no sense. There are a number of countries around the globe that operate on 100% renewable energy, and many others are approaching that same benchmark.

“That was a conversation that was taking place several years ago,” she said. “Batteries are proving up all over the world. Why are you able to see countries now moving to 100% renewable energy? Because technology in the renewable energy field is moving fast, and we now have 100%, not just commitment, but utilization of 100% renewable energy for that reason.”

While nuclear energy is carbon free, its output presents a direct nuclear hazard. The uranium mining required to power these machines isn’t clean, either, Harris said.

“What you’re seeing is really an evolutionary switch. Renewable energy wasn’t going to be fast enough, it wasn’t going to come online soon enough, and I think what you’re seeing is that’s not proving [to be] the case,” she said.

The Snake River Alliance has launched an awareness campaign about the project dubbing the proposed reactors “The Dirty Dozen.” It aims to spread awareness about the project, as well as its potential harms and lack of need on the local power grid. Harris added that with climate change causing increasing wildfires in the state, and with some seismic activity in Eastern Idaho, the safety of the modular reactors is questionable, too.

“The fact is, nuke doesn’t scale up fast enough,” she said. “The days of this old dinosaur grid are quickly falling by the wayside.”

Harris also points to the fact that, currently, the main beneficiary of this project is Utah, with the sole customer being based there and serving largely Utah cities. In her mind, it’s a bad deal for Idaho.

“Idaho gets virtually none of the power, but all of the waste and all of the risk,” she said.

A Nuclear History

Nuclear power, and Idaho National Lab, by extension, have not always been positive for Idaho. In fact, years ago, the Snake River aquifer was tainted by radioactive waste.

From 1952 to 1988, nearly 31,000 curies of Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, were found in the aquifer near the Idaho National Lab site, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. A curie is a unit of radioactive material. The Tritium made its way into the aquifer through a 580-foot disposal well on the site. According to a 2007 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, INL did remedy the issue, noting that Tritium levels were below the federal drinking water standard.

In other cases, indigenous communities have been harmed by the mining necessary to obtain fuel for the reactors and other purposes such as weaponry. According to a 2019 story from the Navajo Times, indigenous uranium miners and generations of Navajo are still affected by the toxicity.

“Someone must be held accountable. … My mother died of liver cancer. My whole family has suffered,” Leslie Begay, a former Uranium miner on the Navajo land in Church Rock, New Mexico, told the Navajo times.

Begay, who had contracted lung disease and developed cancer as a result of the mining, was not covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which only offered miners who worked the mines between Jan. 1, 1942, and Dec. 31, 1971, compensation for their ails. In 1979, a uranium spill from a mill contaminated a large area surrounding the mine, according to the Navajo Times.

Paired with the available capacity for more renewable energy resources, stories such as these inform the Snake River Alliance’s opposition to the reactors.

“Our energy choices have consequences, and we should be held accountable,” Harris said.