Nuclear Advocates Receive DOE Funding for Exploratory Study on Puerto Rico

Final report is due mid-December on the feasibility of advanced nuclear for the island
Crews work on electrical towers in a clearing atop a mountain on Sept. 19, 2018 in Patillas, Puerto Rico. The Department of Energy has approved funding for initial work on a feasibility study into whether advanced nuclear reactors could be a good fit for Puerto Rico, which has struggled with energy problems in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. (Angel Valentin/Getty Images)
October 01, 2019 at 1:50 pm UTC

Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and its power grid, the Energy Department has approved funding for initial work on a feasibility study into whether advanced nuclear reactors could be a good solution to the island’s power problems.

The notice to proceed, provided Sunday to the nonprofit Nuclear Alternative Project from the Idaho National Laboratory, cleared the group to begin work as of Monday, allowing the project team to explore the market conditions for nuclear power and gauge public sentiment toward advanced nuclear technologies on the island. Participants will have a little over two and a half months to complete work on the first of two anticipated study phases.

The project team, led by NAP and composed primarily of lawyers and consultants in the energy space, has been slated to receive $820,000 toward the first phase of the study — less than what the group requested, but sufficient to work with, said Jesabel Rivera, the nonprofit’s community impact and engagement consultant.

The preference had been instead to perform the feasibility study in one phase. “This was supposed to be a nine-month project, and we thought that we were already tight,” said Rivera, who expects an official award letter Wednesday.

A final report is due to be completed and delivered to the Energy Department by Dec. 18, according to a milestone table from the Idaho National Laboratory.

The island-wide outages stemming from Hurricane Maria in 2017 depicted in stark terms the disrepair of Puerto Rico’s electric grid, and efforts have since picked up to restore it with reliability and resilience in mind. Nuclear advocates argue that the safety and security features and miniaturization of small modular reactors or microreactors could benefit the island, including its military installations.

“It's our intent to showcase our advanced nuclear as an alternative energy option for Puerto Rico,” said Donald Hoffman, president and chief executive of EXCEL Services Corp., who is on the project team and last year co-led a delegation with NAP of nuclear executives to meet with Puerto Rican officials and others. EXCEL, he said, has performed this kind of feasibility assessment for 14 other countries.

In addition to assessing Puerto Rico’s energy and resilience needs, NAP and the rest of the project participants will study potential local applications of small modular reactors and microreactors, the island’s legal and regulatory background and how such a project would be financed.

The first phase of the study will inform the final piece of the study next year, which Rivera said would explore further specifics related to site characteristics and the management and logistics of a nuclear project on the island.

Advanced nuclear reactors could be a viable long-term solution to meet Puerto Rico’s needs in an island environment, which poses unique issues of suitability, durability and grid size, said Paul Murphy, managing director of Murphy Energy & Infrastructure Consulting LLC, who is part of the project team and sits on NAP's advisory board.

“Windmills and solar panels don't do well in hurricanes,” Murphy said. “Nuclear plants actually do.” For a territory with a vital tourism sector, blanketing the island with wind and solar is untenable, he said, adding that nuclear energy could help reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy has made clear its support of the eventual deployment of U.S. small modular reactors or microreactors in the coming years. Energy Secretary Rick Perry in September 2017 floated the possible benefits of having small modular reactors to transport to a place like Puerto Rico.

The study is also intended to respond to a partial report from Puerto Rico’s House Government Commission on a House resolution related to exploring whether the island needs nuclear power.

To date, not all stakeholders are on board. According to the feasibility study project proposal, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has told Puerto Rican lawmakers it would prefer that the island not serve as the first location to test a small modular reactor or microreactor. The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, an independent regulator, also raised concerns over nuclear waste and electricity costs.

The Energy Department did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman with Idaho National Laboratory said the lab was unable to provide further information. 

This story has been updated with additional comments.

Jacqueline Toth previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering energy and climate change.

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