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Why nuclear energy is on hold for Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2011 4:19 am | Updated: 1:53 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — Nuclear energy isn’t a good fit for Alaska right now but could be within a decade or two. If a new generation of small, user-friendly reactors hits the market, nuclear power could actually be a viable energy source for Fairbanks, according to a report coming soon by University of Alaska researchers. But it would take even higher energy prices and years of product testing and development before the chain reaction were initiated in Alaska.

“This has possible applications in Alaska, there’s no question about that,” said Gwen Holdmann, director of the UA Alaska Center for Energy and Power in Fairbanks. “But we have some time here.”

Nuclear energy doesn’t make sense now because current gigawatt-sized reactors are too big for Alaska’s power needs. But a renewed push for nuclear power by the federal government and industry could be clearing the way for new technology. Now smaller-scale, modular reactors are approaching the permitting process that could redefine the look and usefulness of nuclear power.

These units could offer lower-cost, emission-free power to Fairbanks in the future. Whether Alaska communities decide to use nuclear energy, the state should weigh in on the regulatory process to keep the option open, the report says.

“Alaska should be at the table,” Holdmann said. “That doesn’t mean we ever have to implement it, but we want to make sure we’re not accidentally closing the door.”

The report was commissioned by the Alaska Energy Authority and completed by ACEP. The center studies a plethora of emerging energy technologies to see which ones would fit into a long-term energy plan for Alaska. It doesn’t advocate for or against technologies but rather tests their economic and technical feasibility, Holdmann said.

Researchers who contributed to the report discussed the potential of nuclear energy at a presentation at the Blue Loon last week. They also shed light on past efforts to develop nuclear power in Alaska.

Nuclear inroads in Alaska

Several years ago Toshiba Corp. wanted to build a new, small-scale reactor in the Yukon River community of Galena. The 10-megawatt reactor would have been buried underground and fuel would have lasted for 30 years. It was projected to slash energy prices from 20 cents per kilowatt hour to several cents, said Dennis Witmer, an energy consultant with ACEP who contributed to the report and previously worked at a nuclear power plant.

But the project never began the mandatory, lengthy and extremely costly process of gaining approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This would include a site license, which takes tens of millions of dollars and several years, as well as a design permit. No design of this type has ever been approved, though one other has made it through the first step of the process, which took about six years.

“The project in Galena is effectively stalled,” Witmer said.

A small reactor also was proposed for Ester a couple of years ago. The design, created by Hyperion Power Generation, was about the size of a hot tub and also buried underground. It was estimated to cost approximately $30 million and produce 25 megawatts, roughly the same as the Aurora Energy power plant. But the project was abandoned when the developer learned it could take 15 years to complete.

The right size for Fairbanks

Traditional nuclear power plants, built mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, have more than 1,000 megawatts of capacity, Witmer said. That’s more electricity than Fairbanks and Anchorage use, combined. They are also incredibly expensive to construct and operate.

“That just wouldn’t be appropriate for us in Alaska,” Holdmann said. “It’s just the smaller modular reactors that even have potential.”

The report looked at various small, modular reactors that were proportionate to power needs in both cities and rural hubs in Alaska. So far, none have been approved or built in the United States. But they are expected to be commercially available by 2020.

The best match for Fairbanks would be a light-water reactor in the range of 45 megawatts.

“It’s very similar to the current technology. You use water to move the heat away from the core,” she said. “It’s just scaled down.”

Though the technology exists to build small-scale reactors, the question is whether they are affordable.

The study weighed the cost of installing and operating the different reactors against the cost of current sources of power. Would nuclear be cheaper in the long run? (Researchers assumed that consumers would switch from space heat to electric heat if it became cheaper over time.)

“Fairbanks turned out to be the one where it really makes sense,” said Toby Shworer of the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Anchorage, which completed the economic analysis.

That’s because Fairbanks has high energy costs and enough power demand to buy all the electricity produced. Even so, it wouldn’t be economical to switch until crude oil prices (now at about $90 per barrel) reach $140 to $160 per barrel, Schworer said.

Other advantages of nuclear include more stable pricing than oil, well-established fuel reserves and no greenhouse gas emissions, Holdmann said.

“We have more understood uranium reserves left than for some of the fossil resources,” she said.

Nuclear would be even more competitive if a carbon tax were imposed in the future.

But could going nuclear help lower crippling energy prices in rural villages , which often depend on diesel for electricity? They don’t have enough power demand to offset the high fixed costs of nuclear, the report found.

“In order to make these economical, you need to have a place to sell your heat,” Holdmann said.

Galena, for instance, only used one megawatt. So what would it do with the other nine?

The cost of building transmission lines to distribute the power further is still too high.

Is nuclear power a safe alternative?

Nuclear power is still plagued by public fear and distrust.

Its reputation was damaged by government testing in the 1950s that caused high-level exposure, as well as disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, researchers said. There are also global security concerns that nuclear waste will be repurposed for atomic weapons.

Nuclear power produces radioactive waste that can take tens of thousands to millions of years to decay and become safe.

And there is no long-term repository for nuclear waste.

The federal government owns the nuclear waste generated by all power plants, which pay into a fund for nuclear disposal.

“The instant you pull fuel out of the reactor it becomes property of the federal government,” Witmer said.

But the government has failed to develop a long-term plan for transporting and disposing the waste, and power plants currently store the waste on-site.

“There’s not a great answer for storage right now,” he said.

The technology, however, is supposed to be safer than ever.

“It has many more passive safety features, where if you lose all power, all water, they’re designed to automatically stop the reaction rather than have a runaway reaction,” Holdmann said.

The NRC wouldn’t approve a reactor that wasn’t safe, researchers said.

There is hot debate over whether nuclear is a green energy.

The Northern Alaska Environmental Center does not support nuclear energy mainly because of waste storage concerns and the impact of uranium mining.

“It’s not a renewable resource,” said Pete Dronkers. “There are better options out there.”

While nuclear is more carbon-intensive than some renewable technologies, like wind and geothermal, it is still far less intensive than coal plants, Witmer said.

“The mining of the uranium is done with fossil-fuel burning equipment, but once the fuel is formed, there are no more carbon emissions,” he said.

The future

Nuclear energy would have to clear plenty of hurdles before arriving in Alaska. The report simply concludes that Alaska should keep itself eligible.

That means keeping up with the nuclear power industry, removing barriers in state statutes and asking regulators to consider unique circumstances in Alaska. For instance, making sure safety regulations can apply to the state’s unconnected grid communities.

Witmer said nuclear power should stay on the shelf while Alaska pursues other energy solutions, such as a natural gas line or hydroelectric dam.

“If we get a gas line, that’s the big winner,” he said. “If those things don’t happen, I think it’s time to take a look at small-scale nuclear.”

Contact staff writer Molly Retting at 459-7590.

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