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The nuclear "renaissance" suffers a blow
SunZia construction halted; LDS church proposes Phoenix-area gated community; X-word solutions
THE NEWS: The anticipated and feared nuclear renaissance suffered a major blow this week when Oregon-based NuScale and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems killed plans to construct a small modular nuclear reactor power plant in Idaho. Several years in the making, the project had become too expensive and there were too few subscribers to make it financially viable.
THE CONTEXT: As the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector has grown more urgent over the last couple of decades, so-called climate hawks have increasingly looked to nuclear power as a decarbonization tool. That’s because the nuclear reaction — like solar or wind energy — emits zero carbon when generating power. And even when mining, processing, and enriching uranium as well as building the nuclear plant are taken into account, nuclear power still emits far less than fossil fuels.
These pro-nuclear climate hawks, or green nuclear evangelists, as I like to call them, tend to brush aside safety concerns and the problem of storing the spent reactor fuel, otherwise known as radioactive waste. And they often completely ignore the impacts of uranium mining, past and present. But it’s more difficult to get around the astronomical cost of building a new conventional nuclear reactor: The price tag for the Vogtle plant in Georgia, still under construction, is around $31 billion so far.
So, the green nuclear evangelists have focused on keeping existing plants, such as Diablo Canyon in California, open. And, to a lesser extent, on developing smaller, unconventional reactors that won’t cost so much.
The euphemistically named Carbon Free Power Project was supposed to fit the bill. It was pushed by a Portland startup called NuScale, which would include 12 60-megawatt reactors installed on the vast Idaho National Laboratory, and the Utah Association of Municipal Power Suppliers, or UAMPS. With 46 members scattered across the Interior West, UAMPS would own and operate the plant, while NuScale would build the reactors.
When I wrote about the project five years ago, NuScale claimed that its small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be safer and use less water than conventional reactors. But the big selling point was their relatively low buy-in cost. A utility could, theoretically, build a micro-nuke plant for less than $2 billion upfront, which ain’t exactly cheap but also isn’t $31 billion. The reactors would be manufactured in a facility, then trucked to the installation; what NuScale lost in economies of scale, it hoped to offset with the volume of reactors produced. NuScale’s main investor, the Fluor corporation, also benefited from oodles of federal subsidies.
NuScale managed to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, but the project would only come to fruition if UAMPS succeeded in selling the concept to its members. This wasn’t easy: It ran into early resistance in Price, Utah, where leaders feared it would help kill the local coal industry; in Truckee, California, because it would hamper the community’s efforts to go 100 percent renewable; and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where residents were leery of investing in unproven technology, not to mention the high projected operating costs relative to other energy sources. Anti-nuclear activists in Utah and Idaho battled the project, too, mostly because it would use a lot of water and add to the growing stockpile of radioactive waste.
In the ensuing half-decade, projected costs continued to rise, scaring off more of the potential subscribers. And several major wind and solar and battery storage projects have also moved forward, making such a plant less desirable — even if it is “carbon free.”
Energy Transition and Public Lands Beat
THE NEWS: The Bureau of Land Management has temporarily halted construction on a 50-mile southern Arizona segment of the SunZia transmission line to allow the agency to further consult with the Tohono O’odham Nation, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and Archaeology Southwest regarding the project’s cultural and environmental impacts.
THE CONTEXT: This is some serious federal agency responsiveness, in my view. Here’s why: The SunZia line — which will carry wind power from New Mexico to central Arizona — has been in the works for nearly two decades. After all kinds of negotiations and rerouting and whatnot, the BLM finally gave the final go-ahead to the project this spring, and even had the blessing of Southwest Audubon.
There was one problem, though: The route cut through the fragile, biodiverse San Pedro River valley, where it would imperil cultural sites and the riparian environment. The San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Archaeology Southwest formally disputed the BLM’s approval and called on the agency to stop construction to allow for more consultation. And guess what? BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning — at the direction of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — did just that, writing:
In response to your request, the BLM has ordered an immediate temporary suspension of SunZia’s activities authorized within the San Pedro Valley LNTP, covering an approximately 50-mile segment in Arizona located entirely on non-Federal land. I respectfully request to meet with you at your earliest convenience within the next 5 days to consult regarding your objections and discuss a path forward.
Who says bureaucrats never listen? That said, construction continues on the rest of the line, making it less likely that the project would be rerouted around the San Pedro River Valley entirely, which is what the tribal nations are asking for.
The U.S. Geological Survey and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories just released a groovy map and database showing every utility-scale solar facility in the U.S. It’s fun to explore and gives a good sense of where the development is occurring.
🏠 Random Real Estate Room 🤑
Property Reserve, aka the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has received the go-ahead to build a 320-unit, gated rental community on farmland in Queen Creek, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. Elanto, as it is called, will feature “Modern Agrarian” and “Modern Bungalow” style homes all lined up in neat rows, each with a private backyard (artificial turf, of course) and a tree. A single tree. Meanwhile, the development will have 1,200 parking spaces. Shows you where their priorities lie, right?
Sounds like a dystopian nightmare to me, but hey, it’s what the people want, I suppose.
It may seem weird that a church is building a suburb where alfalfa once grew, but it shouldn’t: In 2020, Truth and Transparency found that LDS Church-affiliated entities owned at least 1.7 million acres across the U.S.; more recent analyses peg the acreage at 2.3 million — making it the nation’s second-largest private landowner. This land includes the grounds of temples, stake houses, and other institutional buildings, but also farm and ranch land and commercial properties, most of which are held by subsidiaries.
The church’s sizable farmland holdings in the Northwest are mostly operated by AgriNorthwest, a subsidiary of Farmland Reserve, which is a subsidiary of AgReserves. The Church’s Property Reserves, City Creek Reserves, and Suburban Land Reserves together hold 167 parcels in Maricopa County, Arizona (including the Elanto properties), and 187 parcels in Salt Lake County, Utah, including a big chunk of downtown Salt Lake City.
The Desert Sun’s Janet Wilson and Jay Calderon along with ProPublica’s Nat Lash put together a remarkable story and data visualization about the 20 California farming families who together use one in seven drops of water in the Lower Colorado River Basin, or about 387 billion gallons per year. Twenty families, folks! And one of those families uses more Colorado River water than all of southern Nevada (i.e. Las Vegas). What do they use it for? Various crops, but mostly alfalfa and other hay crops. The reporters used OpenET, which we’ve highlighted (and used) in the past, and the USDA’s Cropland Data Layer, also a Land Desk fave. The story is a must read.
Nick Bowlin wrote a great piece for High Country News on how Westmoreland is stiffing coal miners on severance pay at their shuttered facility in northwestern New Mexico. When the San Juan coal power plant and its associated San Juan Mine closed late last year, $8.8 million in state energy transition funds were put in an escrow account for the displaced mine workers. There was enough cash for each worker to receive about $40,000. Instead, the upper-level managers and office workers got as much as $80,000 each, while some of long-time miners received far less or even nothing, so far. It just goes to show that systemic workplace inequities and wage inequality extend to the safety net.
Right wing Wyoming lawmakers gave Republican Gov. Mark Gordon a vote of “no confidence” for acknowledging the reality of climate change and saying the state is committed to becoming “carbon negative.” Meanwhile, The Blaze, an extremist publication if I’ve ever seen one, is referring to Gordon as a “leftist.”
Give me a friggin’ break, people! Gordon is a vehement defender of Wyoming fossil fuel development, and has a (misguided, if you ask me) faith in the efficacy of carbon capture and sequestration. He also is an “all of the above” energy guy and supports wind and solar, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of oil and gas and coal revenues. But leftist? Come on! What does the GOP hope to accomplish with this nuttiness, anyway?