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Utility weighing new type of nuclear power plant

  • May 23, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Our members always want to see their electric rates remain flat or only go up at a very, very slow rate."

Brent Ridge

Dairyland president

The future of nuclear energy in Wisconsin could be different than huge power plants along Lake Michigan as energy companies explore small-scale reactors which wouldn't require nearly as much water and could be operated in a wide range of locations.

Dairyland Power Cooperative, of La Crosse, is eyeing use of the modular reactors which could be linked together like Legos to produce electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

Dairyland has partnered with Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power to evaluate use of the technology in a scaled-down nuclear plant.

The cooperative, which provides wholesale energy for 24 electric distribution cooperatives and 17 municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, says no specific site has been selected.

It would be at least a decade before a plant would be built. But the research, which includes gathering public feedback, has been started.

A need for nuclear seen

Dairyland says there's a need for nuclear power even as the cooperative embraces wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy.

"When the wind's not blowing, and the sun's not shining, something has to ramp up very quickly," said Dairyland President Brent Ridge.

Modular reactors could be built and fueled in a factory, and then shipped by rail, truck or barge, to a power plant where they'd connect to the grid.

The NuScale reactors would be 65 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter. A single unit would be able to power tens of thousands of homes and businesses.

They're part of a U.S. Department of Energy plan for smaller, less expensive, nuclear systems. The agency says nuclear power lessens the nation's dependence on fossil-fuel power plants that are a major contributor to global warming.

There are no small-modular-reactors currently in commercial operation in the United States, but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved NuScale Power's proposed design.

A Utah energy cooperative would be the first in the nation to use the reactors by the end of the decade, according to NuScale. Should the research come to fruition in Wisconsin, Dairyland Power could be among the next to move forward with a project.

"The first step is getting the idea to be known," said Ridge, who previously worked in the nuclear power industry.

"That means getting questions from people who are supportive and not supportive. And then we begin a public educational dialogue."

On May 24, the Wisconsin Technology Council is hosting a luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel, on John Nolen Drive in Madison, to learn more about the Dairyland project and the larger debate over nuclear power. Panelists will include Ridge, who's also the CEO of the cooperative; Jeffrey Keebler, chairman, president and CEO of Madison Gas & Electric; and Paul Wilson, Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering, and chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's department of engineering physics.

"Dairyland's plan to build a small-module nuclear power plant requires regulatory review and won't be carried out overnight. However, it's part of a long-term bid to decarbonize electricity generation across the board," said Tom Still, Wisconsin Technology Council president.

"From the White House to the European Union and beyond, nuclear energy has found its way back into a debate that includes solar, wind and other alternative sources," Still said.

Costs are largely unknown

NuScale hasn't said what it would cost to create a small-modular-reactor system in Wisconsin, although some observers believe it could be several billion dollars.

"Developing a project-specific cost will be part of the due diligence process which includes determining the size of the plant (i.e. the number of modules) the location, construction labor costs, supply chain, and other inputs," Diane Hughes, a NuScale Power vice president said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.

A nuclear reactor is essentially a boiler with a core where uranium atoms split, releasing heat and neutrons. Highly pressurized water circulates through the core and carries heat to a steam generator which drives turbines that produce electricity.

The modular reactors would have advanced safety features including self-cooling and automatic shutdown capability, according to the company. If a module experienced a failure, there wouldn't be a "melt-down" or other catastrophic consequence.

"Modules safely shut down and self-cool, indefinitely, with no need for AC or DC power, operator or computer action, or additional water," NuScale said.

"Security by design" features are expected to increase resistance to theft and diversion of nuclear material, according to the Department of Energy.

"These small-module-reactors could be fabricated and fueled in a factory, sealed and transported to sites for power generation, and then returned to the factory for defueling at the end of the life cycle," the agency said.

The systems aren't meant to replace full-size nuclear power plants which generate around 20% of the nation's electricity. Instead, they would supplement other energy sources including fossil fuels.

"You can still use renewables, such as wind, solar and geothermal, and also have nuclear as part of a 24-hour-a-day solution," said Jhansi Kandasamy, executive director of the Net Zero energy program at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.

Modular and micro-nuclear systems could be scaled to power rural communities, individual businesses, even military operations, refugee camps, and field hospitals in remote places.

"We're testing a micro-grid system in Alaska," Kandasamy said.

Quicker construction time frames

Small-modular-reactors could substantially reduce the lengthy construction times for large power plants that take years to build. Modules could be added if the demand for energy increases, and a half-dozen or so units could be placed on a 40-acre site, many times smaller than what's needed for a full-size nuclear facility.

Water use, for cooling the reactors, would be cut by more than 90%, according to the Department of Energy.

"The ability to use air cooling for a nuclear power plant represents a technological advance and demonstrates that nuclear power can be sited even in locations with limited access to cooling water," George Griffith, the small-modular-reactor project manager at the Idaho National Laboratory said in a report.

The Department of Energy has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing the technology and related systems.

"When they arrive, so-called 'nuclear batteries' or 'fission batteries' could be located on less than an acre and would plug into a mini or micro-electrical grid with very few infrastructure upgrades. There, they could provide power for decades with minimal operating costs and maintenance," the agency said in a report.

"The key to making these reactors a reality is finding niche markets where the numbers work," David Shropshire, a nuclear energy economist at the Idaho National Laboratory said in that document.

Critics say nuclear isn't the answer

Nuclear power critics say the small-modular-reactors are unproven, too expensive, and wouldn't be of much use in reducing global carbon emissions.

Dozens of concepts and designs have been explored and tested for decades but haven't found their way into the power generation marketplace.

There's not even one of the reactors in commercial operation, said Hannah Mortensen, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Wisconsin, an anti-nuclear nonprofit in Madison.

On the other hand, wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are "knocking on our door," Mortensen said, "and it's an opportunity that can't wait."

The cost of nuclear power has risen at the same time as renewable energy has become less expensive. Moreover, when a nuclear reactor of any size reaches the end of its useful life, the cost of storing the hazardous waste extends far into the future.

"Someone has to pay for all that," Mortensen said.

Cost objections raised

In the western U.S., where the first NuScale project is planned, a taxpayers group has objected to what it says are soaring costs and unknown financial risks.

That group, the Utah Taxpayers Association, has urged municipalities to pull out of the project, estimated to cost around $6 billion, that could provide electricity to dozens of communities.

"Our concerns are strictly financial," said association President Rusty Cannon.

"The problem is the municipal-owned power companies are acting as venture capital or seed investors," he said, and that should be a role left to the private sector.

Wisconsin isn't rushing into nuclear

In 2016 under Gov. Scott Walker's administration, Wisconsin lifted its decades-old moratorium on constructing new nuclear power plants.

The last nuclear plant put into service in the state was the Kewaunee Power Station, on Lake Michigan, in the early 1970s. It was closed in 2013 as fallen electricity prices made it unprofitable to operate.

The Point Beach Nuclear Plant, north of Two Rivers, is the state's only nuclear power facility still in operation. The plant's owner, NextEra Energy, has petitioned the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep it running through 2050.

Dairyland Power Cooperative once had a small nuclear plant, called the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, on the Mississippi River in Vernon County. It was built by the federal government in 1967 and shut down 20 years later.

The La Crosse facility was a demonstration plant funded in part by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The original licensee was Allis-Chalmers Co., legendary for its farm tractors.

"It was known as the 'tractor reactor,'" said Ridge with Dairyland Power.

A new Dairyland plant would need approval from the cooperative's membership in order to move forward. That could be a tough sell given the large, and still unknown, sum needed to build even a small-modular-reactors facility.

"Our members always want to see their electric rates remain flat or only go up at a very, very slow rate," Ridge said.

The plant would be expected to have a life span of around 60 years.

If natural gas prices continue to climb, and with concerns about power shortages at peak operating times on the electric grid, the project could become more attractive.

"That's when nuclear really starts to pay dividends," Ridge said.

"Our members always want to see their electric rates remain flat or only go up at a very, very slow rate."

Brent Ridge

Dairyland president

Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on May 24, 2022

Key sentence:

"The key to making these reactors a reality is finding niche markets where the numbers work..”

This may well be the case.  The size and character of the “niche” is still far from defined and it is likely to remain so for at least a decade, despite frequent suggestions to the contrary.

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