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Murray Journal

Murray officials explain vote to scrap nuke project

Dec 14, 2020 12:24PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Pursuit of adding nuclear energy to Murray City Power’s portfolio has been dropped. (Shaun Delliskave/City Journals)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

Murray City Power’s stake in developing a small modular nuclear reactor ended Oct. 20, as the city council voted on advice of its power manager to opt out of the project. The City Council had considered several resolutions, one of which was to increase investment or pull out completely; the council voted unanimously to terminate its involvement.

Murray City Power Manager Blaine Haacke, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and initially proposed adding the experimental small modular reactor (SMR) to its portfolio, backed away after other utility systems dropped support for the project.

“Ultimately, the lack of interest and commitment by the regional utilities was not strong enough, in our opinion, to warrant further involvement,” Haacke said. “The cost of development for a project this size is dependent on the strength of its participants. Only about 25% of the megawatts (mw) for the plant size was committed to by Murray City and other UAMPS members. The subscription size itself was weak, and we didn't want to rely on the promised interest of several larger utilities once the nuclear license is received, which is anticipated to be three years from now.”

City Councilor Diane Turner, who opposed the project from the beginning, said she appreciated Haacke’s candor in exploring the pros and cons of the SMR. “I believe Blaine’s decision not to support the SMRs was very wise. He cares for Murray’s future and wants to make the right choices. I think he saw that there were too many red flags and was concerned about the funding and Murray’s investment,” Turner said.

The project is in the middle of a four- to five-year licensing process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. UAMPS spent close to $9 million to get to this point. The licensing process is being cost shared by Nuscale and Fluor (the SMR developers). Murray City’s portion of that $9 million is approximately $333,000. The cost was dependent on an individual municipality's percent of subscription or entitlement in the plant.  

Opposition to further investment came both from environmentalists and the Utah Taxpayers Association. Environmentalists decried that even though the project was hailed as carbon-free, it still produced radioactive waste. Tax scrutinizers felt that municipal power companies should not be taking the financial risk that is built into this project by essentially acting as venture capital investors, bearing the risk of cost overruns and delays.

According to Turner, “The funding never made sense. It seemed like smoke and mirrors; UAMPS was not specific or clear about the budget. It never made sense that a municipality should provide funding for a new technology that had not been tried or been on the power grid.  

“The completion date was not clear and changed. The large, private for-profit power companies were not interested, thought it was too risky. I guess that was my bottom line, it was just too risky, and I don’t believe we should be investing our citizens’ tax dollars in risky, unproven technology.”

City Councilor Dale Cox, who was initially supportive of the SMR project, noted that the decision, overall, was based more on independent information. “I feel outside interest groups instilled doubt, through misinformation, to Murray citizens. However, I and fellow council members had the opportunity to attend dozens of presentations over the last few years and we received the pros and cons from our power officials.”

Murray Power must now redirect its sights in securing other power sources for its future. Haacke indicates that for the next decade, the city is well covered. 

“Murray is well situated for the next 10 years or so for covering our customers’ needs with existing contracts and plants. We have a variety of fuel sources that is the envy of many. Hydro, coal (three different plants), natural gas turbines, landfill methane plants, solar, and the market. This variety can take us through drought, coal supply issues, and natural gas rate spikes.”

Should the SMR prove functional for power grids, Murray Power may have the opportunity to subscribe to the plant, but at different rates than originally promised. For now, Murray Power is exploring other new options on the horizon.

“The city has pursued large-scale solar in the past year and has options on the table right now to purchase more large-scale solar from other areas of the state. We have preliminarily begun discussions with a geothermal plant operation in central Utah that seems promising. We have obtained bids for the possibility to install natural gas reciprocating engines onsite. We have begun discussions with another UAMPS member to share the cost of a natural gas plant as a partnership,” Haacke said. “And, lastly, we don't want to shut the door on a resurrection of nuclear or other options if it fits our plan.”