(upbeat music) - [Anna] Could a new generation of nuclear technology find a home at Colstrip?
- My fear is it won't happen fast enough.
- Nuclear power has significant risks.
There's no silver bullet for the nuclear waste problem.
- Most Montanans are gonna be skeptical of a technology that has such great risk.
- [Anna] We'll explore the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power in Montana.
That's next on "Impact."
- [Announcer] Production of "Impact" is made possible with support from the Otto Bremer Trust, investing in people, places, and opportunities in our region, online at ottobremer.org, the Greater Montana Foundation, encouraging communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans, and viewers like you, who are friends of Montana PBS.
- Welcome to a special edition of "Impact," our continuing series covering issues important to Montanans.
I'm Anna Rau.
We're dedicating our entire show today to a deeper examination of the excitement surrounding the new generation of nuclear power.
The US Government has shelled out billions to nurture the industry.
And now, Montana has rolled back decades-old nuclear regulations.
As companies and politicians eye Colstrip, critics say we need to slow down.
Carole and Mark Mackin can honestly say nuclear energy brought them together.
They met 45 years ago, when the nuclear industry was firing up in the United States and many Montanans were panicking over the thought of a nuclear power plant here.
- [Carole] So many things were happening so fast in the United States, discussions about big power plants.
And folks just kind of looked around and said, we don't want that here.
(laughs) What do we do?
- [Anna] The Mackins joined a group that decided direct democracy was the best way to address the concerns.
They created an initiative that required a vote of the people for any nuclear power plant over 50 megawatts.
- [Mark] The main thing that people heard about was the vote, that they would get to decide- - [Anna] also in the initiative, but lesser known, was a clause that removed the federal limit on liability in the case of an accident.
The federal government had a $400 million limit.
Under the Montana Initiative, a nuclear company would be on the hook for all damages and cleanup in the case of an accident - [Mark] With nuclear, you've got a huge disaster that remains a disaster for a long time - [Anna] The initiative passed with overwhelming support, 65% of the vote in 1978.
The Mackins have been married ever since.
And no nuclear power plant has ever been built or even proposed with the initiative in place.
- [Carole] I think it gave the citizens of Montana a lot of pride that they had passed it, that they could kind of relax as all the rest of the nation was going in that direction.
- [Reporter] Investigation.
- [Duane] That's a company house, that's a company house, all of these along here are company houses.
- [Anna] About the same time the Mackins were building a consensus against large nuclear, Duane Ankney was building Colstrip's coal-fired generating plants.
- [Duane] I worked on Units 1 and 2 when they was building them.
Then I come back in '82 and went to work permanent in the mine.
- [Anna] Money from the prosperous plants and the nearby mine have supported the community for decades.
Ankney points out the brand new high school, the large parks, and a massive new community gym.
Ankney says they owe it all to coal.
- [Duane] I just assumed seeing burned coal air for the next hundred years.
I'm a coal guy.
- [Anna] To that end, Ankney spent 16 years in the Montana legislature trying to ensure the plants and the mine stay open.
- [Duane] Every session, I had something, some kind of a bill looking out for the workers when and if the plants closed down.
- [Anna] Ankney's term limited out now.
Colstrip's Units 1 and 2 are closed, and utilities are beginning to abandon Units 3 and 4.
Ankney knows coal may be on its way out.
- [Duane] You've seen a real uncertainty here in Colstrip.
You know, I can't imagine what the conversation is around the supper table.
You know, dad, are you gonna have a job tomorrow?
- [Anna] Now, a self-proclaimed coal guy is looking at the nuclear option to save this community.
- [Committee Member] Senate Energy Telecommunications will come to order.
- [Anna] This is where Ankney and the Mackins worlds converge.
- [Mark] Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, my name is Mark Mackin.
- Ankney and the 2021 legislature took aim at that 45-year-old nuclear initiative the Mackins worked so hard to get passed.
- [Mark] A lot of people had put a lot of work into that, and we gathered a good part of the old crew together who did the initiative to come in and testify.
- [Supporter] I think it's very important to respect that the will of the people was voted on already in 1978.
- [Supporter] I think nuclear needs to have a redress from the public.
- [Anna] Representative Steven Galloway is one of the lawmakers who supported the repeal of the citizen initiative.
He says the new nuclear technologies but he believes voters won't give nuclear a fair shake after accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
- [Carole] Do the lawmakers know better than the public?
- [Steven] Well, they elect us to come represent them, you know?
And that's what we have to do.
And sometimes we do have more information at hand than testimonials and research.
- [Carole] I asked the committee to table House Bill 273.
Remember the voters who elected you.
Doesn't that prove that they show good judgment when voting?
- [Anna] During debate over the repeal, it was clear that some lawmakers were uncomfortable with overturning something that passed with 65% of the vote.
- [Committee Member] Representative, I would argue that maybe there's another path which would be to have a referendum to Let the people decide.
- [Anna] In the end, nearly 70% of Montana's lawmakers voted to repeal the initiative.
- [Mark] They just decided that, well, enough of this direct democracy stuff.
We'll just overturn this.
- [Carole] Just really sad and upset, you know?
And, like, what do we do now?
- [Steven] Now the door is open.
If somebody wants to come and spend a bunch of money in our state and build us some nuclear power, we could sure use it.
- [Anna] At the same time Montana was removing obstacles to nuclear, momentum was building on the federal level.
The Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure bill both include tax breaks and incentives for nuclear.
- [Edwin] Money has always been the obstacle for developing new nuclear power plants because they are very expensive and take a long time to build.
- [Anna] Dr. Edwin Lyman is the director of Nuclear Power Safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC.
He says the renewed interest is partly due to the fact that nuclear energy produces very little CO2, and partly because there are new technologies now that sound promising.
One of those new technologies is small modular reactors, also known as SMRs.
- [Edwin] There's a company called NuScale, which has developed a small modular nuclear reactor based on current light-water reactor technology but shrunken down.
And this company is one of the first out of the gate with a commercial design.
- [Jose] A small modular reactor, or SMR, is basically defined as a reactor with the power output of less than 300 megawatts.
And it's scalable.
So you can start with 1 module, 2 module, up to 12 modules, and you install them as the power is needed in a particular region.
- [Anna] Dr. Jose Reyes is the inventor and co-founder of NuScale based in Corvallis, Oregon.
Dr. Reyes says the uranium-fueled reactor modules would be submerged together in a large concrete pool lined with steel.
Dr. Reyes says the reactors are so safe they won't need any electricity or human intervention to shut them down or keep them cool in the event of an emergency.
- [Jose] So this is a major breakthrough for commercial nuclear power in terms of safety.
And that's allowing us to do things that we haven't been able to do in the past.
- [Anna] NuScale is one of dozens of companies that are working on various small reactor designs that can be pre-fabricated and shipped to building sites.
But NuScale stands alone as the only company with the design that's actually been certified for use by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
NuScale is building the first modular reactor demonstration project at Idaho National Labs with the help of a $1.3 billion award from the Department of Energy.
NuScale also recently signed a deal to provide modular reactors in Romania and Poland.
- [Jose] The whole world is looking for clean energy sources, and we really feel that we have a part to play in that.
- [Anna] NuScale has also been active in Montana.
Company representatives testified in favor of a bill to study the feasibility of modular reactors during the last legislative session.
And they're the only modular reactor company we could find that's officially licensed by the state of Montana to do business here.
- [Jose] Certainly in Montana, as in many other states that use coal-fired plants, we're really interested in the the opportunity to replace some of these coal-fired plants with NuScale plants.
And we believe it's a perfect fit because, from the beginning, we've been designing our plants to do that.
- [Duane] They're small, you just put 'em together like plug and play.
You can have 1 or you can have 10 of 'em, it don't matter.
- [Anna] Dwayne Ankney invited NuScale to meet with the Colstrip community last October to talk about what the modular reactors could do to save the town.
- [Duane] To get 90 people out in Colstrip on a weeknight, you gotta have a basketball game.
We had over 140 people in that auditorium.
- [Anna] Dr. Lyman believes all the excitement, hype, and money are clouding critical judgment.
- [Edwin] The problem is that nuclear power has significant risks, safety, security, environmental risks, and costs.
And that message seems to be getting lost in the fervor for building new nuclear power plants, and that's a dangerous mistake.
- [Anna] Dr. Lyman believes that fervor caused the NRC to approve the NuScale design over the objections of one of its own scientists.
The NRC scientist was worried a flaw in the passive shutdown system could lead to a disaster.
- [Edwin] After the reactor shuts down, it could actually return to power again.
In that case, you could have a power increase that could potentially lead to a damage to the reactor.
- [Anna] While the NRC didn't listen to its scientist, NuScale did, and they added a fix to their newest higher power design.
- [Jose] For the lower power, we found that it really wasn't an issue.
But as we increased power, we said this is something that's prudent to do.
It's a very low probability type of event, but we've also now addressed it.
- [Edwin] It just shows that when you're dealing with a brand new design, you can have hundreds of engineers working on it, but sometimes it takes an independent perspective to unveil potential safety problems.
- [Anna] Dr. Reyes says the NRC is so satisfied with the safety of the company's design that the agency is considering rolling back some of the emergency requirements they have in place for larger nuclear plants.
- [Jose] What's not needed is the alarms and the sirens.
And really, that sends kind of a mixed message, right?
Because you say, well, this plant is safe, but we're gonna put all these sirens, and we're gonna put all these evacuation drills, and things like that.
- [Anna] Evacuation planning and emergency sirens would stop at the plant boundary.
Currently, the NRC requires those sirens and emergency training to extend 10 miles into the surrounding community.
- [Edwin] This is what NuScale has focused on trying to eliminate, by that an offsite emergency planning zone is not needed for their technology because it's so safe that there's so little risk of an accident that you'll probably never have to evacuate the public.
- [Anna] Ankney says he wouldn't mind having sirens and evacuation plans for Colstrip if a nuclear power plant ends up here.
- [Duane] It's common sense.
That's all part of your emergency plan.
It don't bother me.
- [Anna] While it is true that nuclear power has fewer accidents and fatalities than most other forms of energy production, when an accident does occur, the cleanup and the fallout are far more costly.
- [Edwin] If it operates well under normal conditions, it doesn't pose a significant risk to the public.
But if there's a catastrophic accident, a large release of radiation, all bets are off.
Those are low probability, high consequence events.
So even if, off in the future, it might make sense to pare back on some of those additional safety systems.
For the first plant, you should have all the bells and whistles.
- [Anne] Nuclear is not a technology that you want to rely on optimism or luck to ensure the safety of the system.
- [Anna] Anne Hedges is the director of policy at the Montana Environmental Information Center.
Hedges says the environmental fears usually get the most attention, but she's also concerned about the financial risks.
- [Anne] I just don't think rate payers in Montana can afford to be on the hook to pay for a technology that doesn't exist yet.
We haven't seen it deployed on a commercial scale any place in the world.
So as we see costs increase, including, very recently, NuScale announcing that its costs have dramatically increased, we can anticipate those costs to be even higher when it's actually ready for commercial deployment in about a decade.
- [Anna] Recent financial reports show that the projected cost of power from NuScale's demonstration project in Idaho has shot up from $58 per megawatt hour to an estimated $89 per megawatt hour.
That price includes the federal subsidies and tax breaks.
And the plant is still under construction, so the final price of energy could be even higher.
- [Jose] All the energy industry, whether it's wind, or solar, or nuclear, are seeing increases in cost.
What I understand though is that we remain competitive.
On that relative scale, we still remain competitive with other forms of energy.
- [Anna] In general, nuclear is more expensive than other power sources, but utilities like NorthWestern Energy say that extra cost can be worth it, because nuclear is reliable and flexible.
- [Bleau] I can ramp it up, I can ramp it down, I can actually shut 'em off and not have 'em create energy for periods of time.
- [Anna] Bleau Lafave is the director of long-term resources at NorthWestern Energy.
The company just finished a plan that models potential future energy sources.
Is there nuclear in there?
- [Bleau] Yes.
- [Anna] Is this the first time you guys have modeled nuclear?
- [Bleau] It's the first time we've modeled nuclear in Montana.
- [Anna] LaFave says the repeal of that citizen's initiative opened the door for nuclear.
Their new power plan shows the company is exploring the idea of replacing Units 3 and 4 with modular nuclear reactors by 2030 and 2035.
It's important to note that so far, NorthWestern Energy has made no official mention of plans to build a nuclear facility in its investor fillings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And LaFave is quick to point out that the IRP is not a binding document.
The company may or may not choose to pursue nuclear in the state, but they are certainly planning now for the possibility.
- [Bleau] So what steps can I take to maybe complete a citing study or complete some of the initial phases that don't cost too much, but put us in a position to where we would have the option to select that resource as part of our portfolio?
- [Anna] Are you doing some of that now?
- [Bleau] We're starting that now, yes.
I'm in contact with all three of the current leading technologies.
And as they continue to build out some of their first projects, we get more costing information.
- [Anna] NorthWestern Energy has already spent an undisclosed sum studying the Colstrip site.
They're also spending an undisclosed sum studying two sites in South Dakota for nuclear.
LaFave says cost estimates from the top three modular reactor companies vary, from 1 billion to $1.5 billion.
By comparison, the gas-fired power plant NorthWestern Energy is building outside Laurel has a price tag of around 275 million.
LaFave says it's critical that NorthWestern Energy understands the true cost of nuclear because the company hopes to pass those costs onto rate payers.
- [Bleau] We'll look at the risk, we'll look at the cost, we'll look at how it fits to serve that load.
- [Lucas] A good utility, a prudent utility will always be evaluating the relative cost of building against what the cost is of buying from the market.
The utility will be looking to, at the end of the day, do right by its customers, because if they don't, there's a risk that the commission could disallow recovery of costs.
- [Anna] Lucas Hamilton is talking about the Montana Public Service Commission, or PSC.
Hamilton is the chief legal counsel for the entity.
Hamilton says since NorthWestern Energy is a monopoly utility, they are subject to regulation by the PSC.
When NorthWestern Energy builds something or buys something, the commission decides how much of it ends up in your utility bill.
- [Lucas] The utilities will be out there making investments that they believe are reasonable and prudent.
But at the end of the day, they have to make that case to the commission.
And the commission will decide whether or not the investment was reasonable, and was prudent, and should be included in the rates.
- [Anna] There is another way utilities can get their investments covered.
Lawmakers just passed a bill allowing for what's known as pre-approval.
It's exactly what it sounds like.
It allows utilities to ask the PSC to guarantee rate payers will foot the bill for a new plant before it's even built.
- [Lucas] Pre-approval allows companies to make these significant investments.
That gives you assurance that you're gonna get recovery when you're spending a billion dollars or more.
- [Anna] That concerns Hedges.
She reiterated that the cost of a nuclear power plant often balloons quickly from the first estimates.
And a project that looks good during the pre-approval process could look foolhardy through the lens of time.
- [Anne] We have seen such enormous cost overruns from the existing fleet of nuclear plants in this country that I think it's really folly to think that this new generation of untested, experimental technology is somehow gonna magically be a lot cheaper.
- [Anna] When the commission pre-approve something, can they rescind that approval later?
- [Lucas] Well, the pre-approval statute as is currently written does not allow the commission to go back in and reevaluate the core findings, the factual findings that it made about the facility.
- [Anna] Hamilton says utilities would have to ask the PSC to approve any cost overruns.
Opponents of pre-approval in the legislature claim it shifts the financial risk of an expensive project from the company to the rate payer.
It's an allegation Hamilton was not willing to weigh in on.
- [Lucas] That is a frequent area of dispute in our dockets.
And for that reason, I can't really give an opinion on it or give a response to it.
- [Anna] For those who would live closest to a nuclear facility, the cost of a power bill pales in comparison to one perennial concern, where do you store all the radioactive spent fuel?
Would you be okay with it being onsite there?
- [Duane] Get it outta here.
- [Anna] I'm sorry, what?
- [Duane] Just get it outta here.
- [Anna] You don't want it to stay in there in Colstrip?
- [Duane] No.
- [Anna] But there is nowhere to send it to.
Currently, there is no federal repository for nuclear waste.
According to a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Math, 86,000 tons of spent fuel and other radioactive waste are stored at 79 sites in 35 states across the nation.
- [Edwin] Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet for the nuclear waste problem.
Spent nuclear fuel remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.
And as a result, the only safe place to dispose of it is deep underground, in and the United States does not have such a facility.
- [Anne] So ultimately, what happens is you get the nuclear waste stored onsite.
- [Anna] The current storage process is to place the spent nuclear fuel in dry concrete cylinders called casks, that will sit out in the open on a concrete pad.
Dr. Reyes believes the waste would be minimal from a six-module NuScale plant.
- [Jose] If you look at the amount of used fuel that would be produced by that plant, for the 60-year life of the plant, all that waste will fit in these dry cask storage systems on 0.8 acres of land.
And even after that, 95% of that energy content is still in the fuel.
So that fuel could be reprocessed for future use at a later date.
- [Edwin] Some developers feel like they have to convince the public that more nuclear waste is not gonna be a problem.
And as a result, some of them are claiming that their designs will produce less waste, or no waste, or will be able to recycle their own waste or other reactors' waste, and all of those claims are simply not supported by the evidence.
- [Anna] There is considerable debate and disagreement over the amount of waste small modular reactors might produce.
And because no company has built one yet, no one knows for sure.
But when it comes to recycling the spent fuel, that same academy's report found that natural uranium is so cheap and abundant that there is no incentive for companies to recycle their spent fuel.
And recycling would add cost to nuclear power generation but produce no significant benefits.
In an online presentation, NuScale admits that, currently, fuel recycling.
- [Jose] Is not cost-effective or economical.
- [Expert] Recycling nuclear fuel is a tricky business.
- [Anna] even if it were economical, Dr. Lyman says recycling spent fuel would create its own set of problems.
- [Edwin] To recycle spent nuclear fuel, the first thing you have to do is you have to process it.
And that requires dissolving that material in a large industrial facility, generating a lot of different waste streams, many of which are also very hard to deal with, putting radioactive pollution into the air, into the water.
Those are dangerous and dirty facilities, and it's certainly no solutions to the waste problem.
- Carole and Mark Mackin say nuclear waste was one of their big concerns when they got the initiative passed.
And 45 years later, the waste problem remains.
- [Mark] There was always a serious issue with the radioactivity, having to find a place to put it to store it in perpetuity.
- [Anna] The Mackins believe while the nuclear technology may be new, the arguments and the promises are the same ones they heard in the '70s.
- [Mark] We're going to have this nuclear energy power plants, and it's gonna be safe and it's gonna be too cheap to meter.
Well, it wasn't safe, as we all know, at least in large scale, and it's never been too cheap to meter.
- Now with the initiative gone and the nuclear industry eyeing Colstrip, Montana is at a crossroads.
The decisions made here will be felt for generations to come.
The next step in NorthWestern Energy's power plan would be to issue a request for proposals.
Company officials say if they do take that step, it wouldn't be until mid to late 2024.
That's all the time we have for this episode.
On the next "Impact," the Montana legislature just passed a ban on some types of gender-affirming We'll talk to families and physicians about how they're planning to navigate the new reality.
And last spring, floodwaters devastated the Yellowstone Park Gateway communities.
We'll see where the towns are on the road to recovery.
I'm Anna Rau.
Thanks for joining us.
We'll see you next time.
(upbeat music) - [Announcer] Production of "Impact" is made possible with support from the Otto Bremer Trust, investing in people, places, and opportunities in our region, online at ottobremer.org, the Greater Montana Foundation, encouraging communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans, and viewers like you, who are friends of Montana PBS.