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The Advanced Test Reactor Facility at INL during the sunrise

Nuclear energy is a carbon-free power source. Idaho has no commercial-scale nuclear power generation plants; however, nuclear power has a rich history in Idaho, notably at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), established in 1949. In fact, INL was the site of the first use of nuclear fission to produce a useable quantity of electricity, and in 1955, the Borax III reactor provided electricity to the town of Arco, ID. Although temporary, this was the first time that a nuclear reactor powered an entire US community. INL is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s complex of 17 national laboratories and is the lead laboratory on integrating nuclear energy research, development, demonstration and deployment.

NuScale Power, LLC is slated to begin building a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) power plant at the INL site, which could hold up to 12 modules. Owned by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and operated by Energy Northwest, this plant will provide electricity and clean water to areas that typically rely on coal-based utilities. UAMPS is planning on commercial operation of the first NuScale Power Module at INL in 2026. More information about their SMRs and NuScale’s project can be found here.

Nuclear energy works by splitting uranium atoms in a process called fission to boil water and produce steam. Steam spins turbines, which operate generators and form electric currents. The energy released from a pound of uranium through nuclear fission is much greater than the energy produced from burning a pound of coal (2.5 million times more), making it possible to generate vast amounts of energy from a very small amount of material. Unlike coal, oil, and natural gas, nuclear plants do not burn anything to produce steam, which means that nuclear plants produce no greenhouse gases and are a carbon-free form of energy.

There are several different types of nuclear power reactors, including light-water reactors, gas-cooled reactors, heavy-water reactors (reactors which use a “heavy” form of water – deuterium oxide) and breeder reactors. The power reactors in the United States utilize light water technology, either pressurized water reactors, or boiling water reactors. NuScale’s SMRs are a type of light-water reactor.

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World Nuclear Association – Diagram of pressurized water reactor