LOGAN — A small modular nuclear power plant design for a facility in southeast Idaho is winding its way through the federal regulatory framework, a procession a key Trump administration official described Tuesday as historic.
Edward McGinnis, principal deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, said the NuScale Technology design represents the "next generation" in nuclear energy and would be "game changing" for Utah and other potential customers.
"I would say that I have never seen a moment in time in the United States from a transformative perspective that we are seeing in nuclear energy," McGinnis told members at a Logan conference for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.
The energy cooperative is a community-owned, nonprofit political subdivision of Utah, with member cities that include Bountiful, Logan, Murray and Blanding.
Members of the group are pursuing the project as a way to shore up energy stability in a market fraught with the threat of shuttered coal-fired power plants and fluctuating natural gas prices.
Once completed in 2026 at a 35-acre site at the Idaho National Laboratory, the energy coalition will own the project, which is the first of its kind in the country to come under review of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and receive funding support from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Unlike the traditional, huge nuclear power plants in the United States that typically produce 2,000 megawatts, the small modular design occupies a smaller footprint and can be ramped up as needed with additional units coming online.
Incorporating zero carbon emissions technology, the project envisions cylindrical modular reactors that are 76 feet by 15 feet, installed underground, each capable of generating up to 50 megawatts of power. Depending on energy needs, there would be anywhere from six to 12 reactors at the Idaho site.
The small modular reactors are designed to be self-contained and operate independently within a below-grade, water-filled pool. Officials have touted the technology because of its lack of moving parts, relying on convection rather than pumps to circulate the water through the reactor.
McGinnis said the water needs for NuScale's project are "dramatically" reduced in contrast to traditional nuclear power plants across the country, which, on average, have been in operation for 39 years.
There are hurdles to clear, however, with lingering concerns over potential environmental impacts and opposition from anti-nuclear activists with questions over storage of nuclear waste.
The technology also needs to prove to be commercially viable and provide the energy to customers at competitive rates.
McGinnis said there is tremendous interest on the part of the U.S. Department of Energy to see the project through to a successful fruition.
"We don't do this lightly," he told the crowd. "If we are going to put this much money into something this important, we are going to do everything we can to support this technology."
John F. Kotek, vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said people don't often realize the Idaho National Laboratory has a decades-long history with nuclear reactors, with more than 50 built on site.
We don't do this lightly. If we are going to put this much money into something this important, we are going to do everything we can to support this technology.
–Edward McGinnis, U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy
The first American city to turn the lights on from nuclear energy was nearby Arco in the 1950s, he added.
"This represents an opportunity to open new markets for nuclear energy for greater flexibility in both size and how it is operated," he said, describing the potential for NuScale.
Many countries don't need a power plant that produces 2,000 megawatts of energy, so the smaller modular nuclear reactors provide smaller-scale options, he said.
Russia, China and South Korea are already leaders in modular reactor design, and the United States wants a place in the negotiating line, Kotek added.
In some ways, the global energy market has become the new geopolitical contest of its time, not driven by philosophy but who controls the energy supply chain.
Kotek pointed to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict over a natural gas supply that set Europe on edge during a brutal cold spell earlier this year.
The Trump administration criticized Germany over the contradictory fact that it belongs to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but depends on natural gas supply from Russia.
NuScale's design application, all 12,000 pages, passed its first phase of review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and advances to the second stage.