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Last week I attended the Intermountain Energy Summit in Idaho Falls. This third annual meeting focused on “innovations and opportunities in clean energy” in the West. While many panelists mentioned our  vast potential for geothermal, solar and wind, nuclear power was the darling of the show.

Nuclear Crowd Discovers Climate Change

In a sign of changing times, most conference speakers acknowledged that carbon pollution is changing our climate. Instead of debating climate science, attendees discussed options for removing carbon pollution from the energy sector. Many speakers admonished the nuclear industry to get aboard the climate change train by touting the carbon-free nature of nuclear power.

While the Idaho Conservation League welcomes cutting carbon pollution, we must also protect Idaho’s communities, air, water, fish and wildlife. That’s why we look at every project carefully.

Remember the China Mountain wind farm proposed for southern Idaho a few years ago? Sure, it was clean energy-but in one of the best remaining pieces of sagebrush landscape left in Idaho, critical for a host of species. So ICL chose to oppose that project.

What’s the story with nuclear then? By not burning fossil fuels, nuclear provides power with fewer carbon emissions. But uranium mining can destroy habitats and pollute water supplies. Nuclear fuel waste leaves a radioactive legacy lasting for millennia. And cooling a nuclear plant requires vast amounts of water. Historically, nuclear is also very expensive to build. Among our carbon-free energy options, nuclear has many hurdles to clear.

Will Mini Nukes Save the Day?

Given that the traditional model of massive, heavily subsidized nuclear plants rarely works out, “mini nukes” are here to save the day…maybe. Proponents of these so-called small modular reactors say that the new design addresses many of the traditional concerns:

  • Size-A traditional nuke plant, like Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Wash., provides 1,000 megawatts of power, enough for Seattle. Financing such a massive project today is difficult, and no current power plan in our region calls for such a new plant. Mini nukes, about a third this size, could be built incrementally by linking units together. But the clean energy options of geothermal, solar and wind provide even more flexibility for correctly scaling a project to meet energy needs.
  • Radioactive fuel and wasteNuScale, a leading mini nuke proponent, plans to address this concern by building units in a central factory. This means shipping nuclear parts and fuel around the country by truck, rail or barge. Also, we see no indication of a permanent solution for the radioactive waste. A credible, long-term solution to radioactive waste must be a precondition for any discussion about expanding nuclear power.
  • Cost-Every energy source costs money. The question is about which resource gives you energy when you need it for the least cost? Investment company Lazard provides one of the most comprehensive and complete comparisons of energy options. While its most recent  report covers a lot of ground, one takeaway is clear: nuclear is far more expensive than wind, solar or energy efficiency. So if cutting carbon while keeping energy costs reasonable is the goal, nuclear is not the solution.

Clean Energy for Idaho

Despite the unproven design, uncertain plans for waste and extreme cost, Idaho could be the test bed for new mini nukes. Last week, NuScale and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems  announced a deal to lease some land at the Idaho National Lab for the first mini nuke. Although the company is at least four years from even being approved to build the first prototype, ICL will remain vigilant to ensure that our clean air, clean water, special places and communities are protected.

In the meantime, we know that Idaho has clean energy options available today-wind, solar and geothermal-that cost less, match our needs better, and don’t have the radioactive legacy of nuclear waste. ICL is working toward this clean energy future.