NewsMiner: Why Nuclear Energy is on Hold for Alaska

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.

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