Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday signed legislation that could help bring nuclear microreactors to Alaska in the coming years, in an effort to help villages lower high electricity prices.
Senate Bill 177, introduced by the governor early this year and passed by the Alaska Legislature, streamlines regulatory procedures so that Alaska communities can pursue using the nuclear microreactors if they choose.
A requirement for legislative approval of a microreactor’s location would be eliminated. Also gone would be a requirement for continuous studies of a project by state regulatory agencies.
Nuclear microreactors have long been considered a potential alternative for Alaska villages that rely on diesel fuel for electricity, or for industrial sites like mines.
But the microreactors are largely in the research phase, and the use of nuclear power has also long been controversial due to concerns about safety and waste.
Any installation of a microreactor would not happen for several years, the governor’s office said.
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Currently, the U.S. Air Force is looking at installing a microreactor at Eielson Air Force Base by 2027. And Copper Valley Electric Association is also looking at the possibility of installing one in Valdez.
The bill signing took place at the governor’s three-day Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference in Anchorage, as the war in Ukraine pushes gas prices to record levels and concerns grow about the long-term supply of Cook Inlet natural gas.
The microreactors would use a tiny sliver of the power used in nuclear power plants to provide energy to a village, and would not be hot enough to cause a meltdown, officials with microreactor companies at the conference said.
They could be shipped to Alaska villages by barge, and connected to existing power grids, intended to reduce sky-high power prices in rural Alaska by providing a long-term stable fuel source, they said.
Officials with those companies said they’ve been meeting in recent years with Alaska communities and organizations to discuss opportunities for microreactors in the state.
The event, held at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, focused on renewable power sources like wind and solar, but also featured nuclear power and natural gas. The microreactors took center stage with the bill signing on Tuesday.
Michael Valore, manning a booth for Westinghouse Electric, said nuclear waste from its eVinci microreactor system would not be left in villages.
“We bring the unit with the fuel in it, and we take the reactor away with the fuel in it,” Valore said. “There is no radiated material handling required in any remote area of Alaska with this design. It does not need to be refueled in Alaska.”
“We designed this to be almost a drop-in type replacement for diesel generation,” Valore said.
Mary Woollen, with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. based in Seattle, is working on a feasibility study of the technology for the Copper Valley Electric Association.
Woollen said the microreactors use safe designs and technology. Temperatures in the reactor would not be hot enough to cause a meltdown, and the amount of waste the company would remove every 20 years would be about the size of a refrigerator.
“It simply can’t melt down,” she said.
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The microreactor technology drew criticism from a local conservation group at the conference.
Outside Alaska, the storage of nuclear waste has disproportionately impactsed Indigenous and minority communities, said Matt Jackson with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
“I want to see clear plans for how they will deal with their waste so they don’t leave villages high and dry with spent uranium in the middle of their town,” Jackson said.
Jackson helped organize a rally with the Alaska Center, another conservation group, outside the conference on Tuesday evening.
“We are not protesting the conference, but we are providing a counter-narrative that natural gas and nuclear energy aren’t part of a sustainable energy solution,” Jackson said.
Ethan Schutt, an executive with Bristol Bay Native Corp. who helped develop the Fire Island wind energy project west of Anchorage, moderated a panel on Tuesday at the conference.
He told a reporter that he doesn’t think microreactor technology will be ready for Alaska villages for another decade, at least.
He said it’s reasonable to test it at a military base, where it can be installed far away from people, and where lots of safety equipment is on hand in case there’s a problem.
“It’s probably attractive for rural Alaska at some point, but it needs to be looked at closely,” he said.