• Two of 35 cities have opted out of a pilot nuclear plant program powered by NuScale.
  • NuScale’s tiny modular reactors will be manufactured at Idaho National Laboratory.
  • Time will tell if these two opt-outs hold larger meaning for NuScale’s ambitious plans.

    Small modular reactor startup NuScale had a setback this week when two cities pulled out of a planned 35-city pilot program of new nuclear plants. As the first small reactor to break through many regulatory landmarks, NuScale has been under a great deal of public scrutiny. Is this a bump in the road or something more? That’s a question of perspective.

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    Nuclear power plants in the U.S. from the current generation are aging out, reaching “end of life” and beyond for the kind of technology they include. China is continuing to add gigantic nuclear power plants while investing in the next generation of reactors, and even participating in the massive international ITER fusion reactor project. Russia, meanwhile, has a floating power plant and nuclear-powered icebreaker ships, while India is rapidly building new nuclear power plants and is also a participant in ITER.

    But in the U.S., anti-nuclear sentiment is still perceived to be pretty high. Americans aren’t alone—some portion of people around the world believe nuclear power is dangerous and threatening, with a perception that sustainable, renewable energy can replace the current demand on traditional fossil fuel power plants.

    The truth is that many small projects like NuScale and its industry peers are prepared to work in tandem with sustainable power supplies in order to stabilize grid supply, because without a great deal of costly storage, many sustainable energy projects aren’t ready to plug into the grid yet. That’s not due to any technical failing—it’s just a technology and infrastructure that’s still being ramped up to full production levels.

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    Within the U.S., though, small modular reactors like NuScale’s represent a “nuclear Renaissance,” Bloomberg reports—an opportunity to commit to new nuclear technology in a way the public feels is safe. A public utility in Utah has offered the option to dozens of cities, and two of these, Logan and Lehi, have opted out of the program after a previous commitment. All the cities have until Wednesday to do this.

    Utah is in some ways an ideal pilot location for NuScale, whose reactors will be built at U.S. Department of Energy facilities at Idaho National Laboratory. The largest city in the state is just 200,000 people, and the entire population is just 3 million. Logan and Lehi both have about 50,000 people, making them part of a key demographic for small reactors. These small power plants harken back to the origins of nuclear power, when reactors were small by necessity and used to power individual towns rather than entire portions of large electrical grids.

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    Does this “defection” spell doom for NuScale? Bloomberg’s reporting suggests some experts think so, but the parachute option was built into this plan from the beginning. If 35 cities signed up, that means a healthy 33 are still involved. Certainly, in 2020, there’s a lot of complexity that municipalities are trying to juggle in order to stay liquid and support their residents.

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