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Debate Continues Over Small Nuclear Reactors in Montana

The merits and pitfalls of pursuing nuclear power in Montana were recently debated by experts on both sides of the spectrum, with some telling a committee it is too costly and renewable energy should be pursued.

Nuclear Cooling Tower
(TNS) — The merits and pitfalls of pursing nuclear power in Montana were recently debated by experts on both sides of the spectrum, with some telling a legislative committee it is too costly and renewable energy should be pursued instead and others saying it could be key in decarbonization efforts and provide high wages.

During the legislative interval, the Montana Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee is looking at the use of small modular reactors (SMRs) in Montana through Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R- Helena. SJ-3 says the expected closure of Colstrip's coal-fired power plants will result in negative impacts on the community and coal-fired boilers could be replaced by an SMR that would provide clean energy and good-paying jobs.

The May 20 meeting by the committee was a hearing and no recommendations were made. The committee is to complete a study by Sept. 15, to be reviewed in the 2023 legislative session.

At this time, no one is committing to building a nuclear power plant in Montana. None of the Colstrip owners, who represent 85% of Colstrip capacity, and all of the transmission capacity, have plans for nuclear power in Montana.

Ed Davis of the Pegasus Group said he was speaking on behalf of the Department of Energy, and said there are 93 nuclear plants operating today generating 20% of the nation's electricity and more than 50% of its carbon-free electricity. The U.S. government has a goal of decarbonizing the electricity sector by 2035.

He said the DOE has concluded that an "excellent candidate" to reach that goal is nuclear power, specifically small nuclear reactors.

"This administration and the department is all in when it comes to promoting" advanced nuclear energy reactors and SMRs, he said.

Later in the discussion, as others pointed out their problems with nuclear plant proposals, Davis said "I find myself cast in the middle of a debate here that I have heard over the past several decades."

David Schlissel of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis appeared before the committee with a report titled "Small modular reactors — too untested, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain."

His organization has been described as a think tank that does research relating to economic and environmental issues with the goal of a faster transition to renewable energy.

Schlissel, who also testified before the panel in February, said there are 10 small nuclear reactor designs available, but none have been built, few details have been provided and nothing is certain about the actual costs.

He also warned of delays, cost increases and problems with construction and the first years of operation.

"SMRs are far more likely to continue the nuclear industry's long history of over-promising and under-producing," his report stated.

Schlissel said nuclear plant projects now underway have had significant construction delays and cost increases, some as much as 276%.

He said solar and wind capacity have increased more than 12 times since 2007 and costs have been declining as solar panels and wind turbines are being built.

Schlissel said he is in favor of federal money to look into technologies to see if they work. The goal is to not put ratepayers and taxpayers on the hook for such projects to be built.

He said NuScale, one of the designers of small nuclear reactors, claims there is substantial interest in its proposed reactor, but had no firm contracts. Gauthier has mentioned SMRs made by NuScale as a possibility. He also said claims it will have a 95% capacity factor over its lifetime has not been achieved by any nuclear unit in the United States.

Diane Hughes, vice president of marketing and communications for NuScale said in an email Wednesday that Schlissel's report mischaracterizes NuScale's costs, does not accurately reflect or examine schedule timeframes, and fails to understand the output and capacity of a NuScale VOYGR facility.

"A three-year research effort determined that NuScale's plant design is the most resilient nuclear reactor in the world," she wrote. "A NuScale VOYGR plant can provide highly reliable power at 95% total capacity and even higher reliability to mission critical micro-grids (154 MWe at 99.95% reliability or 77 MWe at 99.98% reliability over the 60-year lifetime of the plant).

She said NuScale's technology has been designed to allow for flexible operations and load following with renewables.

"Power plants are usually compensated by the system operator for being able to operate in a flexible manner and provide dispatchable (always available) electricity, along with providing ancillary services, such as inertia and frequency control," Hughes said in the email.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R- Colstrip, brought up solar and wind energy. He said the wind blows 30% of the time and battery storage is needed 70% of the time, and it can't be a battery that will last only two days.

Schlissel said Ankney is correct as of today, but there are studies for batteries that would last 100 hours.

"It's just a matter of time," he said.

Matt Crozat, executive director of strategy and policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association for the nuclear industry, said utilities nationwide have pledged to reduce carbon emissions. He said nuclear power could help them achieve those goals.

Crozat said jobs in the nuclear industry pay the highest wages in the energy field.

Helena resident Robert Balhiser, a retired engineer who wrote the SJR-3 Legislative Study Resolution, said many of the negative comments about nuclear power were made 20 years ago by big auto companies against electric vehicles.

Now big auto is trying to catch up in developing such vehicles, he said.

He said all energy systems at one time or another have been subsidized by the government and all have a place in the energy mix in the future.

Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said there are a lot of good intentions in the debate.

There is a real problem here and the problem is that the energy transition is happening now, Hedges said.

"What we all need and what we are grappling with is affordability vs. salesmanship and vs. good intentions," she said, adding "We simply cannot afford higher rates, we just can't."

She said she is not anti-nuclear.

Hedges said a cost cap is needed and Montanans should not foot the bill, and there were solutions not yet talked about.

"In Montana, we need to be cautious, we are not the place to do this expensive experiment," she said.

"I don't think anyone has bad intentions here; everyone is looking for same thing, affordable power in a modern energy age," Hedges said. "Unfortunately I don't think nuclear is right for Montana right now."

Sen. Mary McNally, D- Billings, the committee chair, thanked the panelists for their presentations, adding they have given the committee a lot to digest as to what the next 10 years will look like in Montana.

"The information is competing, but helpful," she said.

© 2022 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.