Despite at least two proposals in the last couple of years for new commercial nuclear power plants in Idaho, don’t expect to see one in the next decade, a nuclear industry expert told a Boise forum today. If you look out 15 years, it “might be possible,” said Ralph Bennett, director of international and regional partnerships for the Idaho National Laboratory.
One nuke plant proposal for the Payette area was dropped early this year after developers concluded it wasn’t economically feasible. Another proposal, for a plant along the Snake River in Elmore County, has stirred up lots of controversy but made little progress; developer Don Gillispie first proposed a site in Owyhee County, then moved the project.
Bennett told the Idaho Environmental Forum today that nuclear power plants take “a lot of lead time.” There are currently more than 20 proposed across the country, nearly all of them in the southeastern United States. A handful may win final approval there and begin construction in the next few years. If those are successful, Bennett said, “the potential may arise for development in Idaho.”
But, he said, “Public acceptance in Idaho will be very dependent upon addressing water use.” There are three types of nuclear plants when it comes to water use, he said, with the heaviest water-using type suitable only for coastal areas with plentiful water. The least water-dependent type, which uses “dry cooling,” suffers in warm climates. “There actually is a nuclear plant that uses exclusively dry cooling,” Bennett said. “It’s in Siberia.” The third type, which uses 10 times as much water as the dry cooling method, makes use of evaporative cooling towers. One plant back east is experimenting with a design that uses a hybrid of dry and wet cooling, he said, which could be “interesting to watch.”
Another hurdle for a nuclear plant in Idaho is the state’s already relatively low electricity prices, Bennett said, compared to the high construction costs for a nuclear plant. That wouldn’t foreclose a plant from being built, as any Idaho plant likely would be a “merchant” plant that sells the power it generates to other states. But that also brings the need to satisfy neighbors that they won’t be unduly impacted by a plant that doesn’t actually serve them. This year’s BSU Public Policy Survey found 70 percent of Idahoans would oppose a nuclear plant in their county that provided electricity for other states, but if the plant were to serve Idahoans' energy needs, the numbers shifted to 43 percent opposed and 45 percent in favor.