LETTER: UAMPS and NuScale nuclear projects take away from renewable energy possibilities

The debate over nuclear power has ramped up recently in Utah, with a number of the state’s  municipal power agencies wrestling with continued participation in an experimental nuclear  project in Idaho, the UAMPS / NuScale project. 

Much has already been written about the project itself. Though proponents tout benefits of  cost and reliability, two municipalities so far, Logan and Lehi, have recently opted out of further participation, citing mainly financial concerns over an experimental design with delays and cost  overruns mounting rapidly. Still, this extremely expensive energy might be worth it ― if the  environmental benefits, particularly for climate change, were significant. 

Climate Change  

Climate change is regarded within the full scientific community as a bona fide civilizational emergency ― that is, a situation requiring immediate, meaningful response to avoid  catastrophic outcomes. For the climate emergency, meaningful response means cutting global  carbon emissions at least in half in the next decade, and eliminating them entirely in the next 2-3 decades. Electricity generation, as roughly a third of the current carbon emissions, is a  large piece of the equation ― and it is on this point that nuclear power has been worth considering. Indeed, the project’s developers, having christened the endeavor the ‘Carbon  Free Power Project,’ are emphasizing the climate angle. And if the question were about  building new nuclear generation versus new fossil (coal or natural gas) generation, they would  have a point; the clear winner with respect to climate would be nuclear. 

But this isn’t the question. 

In rapidly decarbonizing the electrical grid, the name of the game is replacing existing high carbon (coal and gas) with new low-carbon, as quickly as possible. In this game, it’s essential  to distinguish between existing nuclear, which is already installed and running, and proposed  new nuclear, which is yet to be built.  

Existing nuclear makes sense at the moment. The investments have already been made and  are producing low-carbon energy right now, today. From a climate / carbon standpoint, these  plants should continue to generate until all existing fossil generation can be shuttered. 

But proposed new nuclear makes no sense ― because it isn’t competing with fossils. Instead,  new nuclear is competing with low-carbon renewables, chiefly solar and wind. And it simply  can’t compete. 

Investing in new nuclear projects to combat climate change is akin to the crew of the Titanic  devoting time to building a whole new ocean liner instead of putting all their effort into loading  the lifeboats; it steals time and resources from a much better alternative. Any money spent on  new nuclear could buy us 4-6 times more wind and solar energy, available in months instead of  a decade. And remember, the next ten years are critical.  


Faced with this reality, UAMPS / NuScale proponents have said indeed, they want a mostly  renewable grid, but supplemented by just a bit of nuclear for “baseload” ― and that this is  necessary.  

The refrain of 20th-Century-era power managers is that renewables like wind and solar aren’t  reliable (“The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine…”) and so constantly  humming “baseload” is necessary for reliability. It sounds reasonable, but like most bumper-sticker wisdom, doesn’t hold up. In fact, it is objectively, demonstrably wrong. The  technologies of energy storage (utility-scale battery systems, for example) and demand  management (when the energy is used) have transformed the landscape. Traditional  “baseload” is no longer a necessary grid attribute. Anyone who says it is, simply isn’t keeping  up. 

In Australia, for example, a 100-Megawatt utility-scale battery system (about 1.5 times bigger  than one of NuScale’s nuclear modules) is already proving more reliable and 90% cheaper than  the “baseload” natural gas system it’s replacing

The energy landscape ahead will be challenging. Existing nuclear plants should continue to  operate while fossil fuel generation comes offline. But new nuclear makes no sense  whatsoever ― financially or, far more importantly, for addressing climate change. The  UAMPS / NuScale project is a poor choice for the planet; for our nation; and for Utah’s  independent municipal power companies. A bright future is possible if we’re smart and  focused; the nuclear power trap is a distraction we can’t afford.

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  • Dave Powelson December 8, 2020 at 7:37 am Reply

    Robert Davies short but well done analysis pokes holes in new nuclear power without even referring to the problems of nuclear waste and the spread nuclear technology that supports nuclear weapons. Like many decisions we must not just focus on the benefits, we must consider the risks.

  • Paul Borup December 8, 2020 at 9:05 pm Reply

    Maybe Robert can elaborate on what solar panels are made of and their expected life cycle before needing replacement. When they do need to be replaced, I would love to hear about the impact to the environment. It would also be enlightening to understand what sort of ecological costs there are with utility scale battery storage. It would be interesting for him to trace the lifecycle of developing and manufacturing batteries on that scale and the associated environmental costs. I would love for him to outline how they will be replaced and disposed of as well.

    When forecasting expanded wind and solar capacity, has Robert included diminishing marginal utility? The most productive locations are developed first (highest amounts of sunlight and greatest sustained wind speeds). Each successive development will not be as productive. They will also be located in areas where new transmission lines will be required. Will those increased construction costs (and associated environmental impacts) be built into the comparison?

  • rob davies December 9, 2020 at 9:56 am Reply


    Your comments are well placed. Of course there are environmental costs to any industrial scale energy program, including solar. This point brings into focus the notion that simply changing out components in the supply side of our energy system is not going to take us where we need to go. We must also make foundational changes in demand.

    That said, it’s interesting you didn’t ask the same questions of nuclear. I didn’t even touch the environmental questions of mining and refining fissionable fuel (i.e., uranium) or ― far more importantly ― the waste disposal… which we still don’t know how to do.

  • Dale Matthews December 19, 2020 at 10:12 am Reply

    This author uses the same sleight-of-hand that all proponents of unreliable energy sources use. He equates megawatts with megawatt-hours. If you read the article he links to, the 100 MW battery is good for 129 MW-hours, which means is can produce 100 MW for about 1.3 hours. I suspect that it takes far longer than that to recharge it. So to get 100 MW of reliable power that will last through a nor’easter when the wind turbines are iced up and solar panels are buried in snow, you need 18 of these batteries per day to put 100 MW on the grid. A 100 MW power source is useless unless it is putting power on the grid. Your car has the same rated horespower whether its sitting in your driveway or rolling down the interstate, but that power is only useful when the engine is provided with a reliable fuel supply. The NuScale plant can produce its rated power for 18 months continuously, and it wouldn’t take much to extend that to 24 months.

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