Man proposes nuclear power plant near Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA - A Fairbanks man looking to invest in emerging nuclear technology is proposing to build his project near Ester.

John Reeves, who owns a four-acre site near the Parks Highway, said he knows he’ll have to wait a few years to begin work on the project. And the company developing the technology reports setting a target date of 2013 to bring its energy modules — essentially small-scale, self-contained nuclear reactors designed to be buried underground — to market.

But Reeves isn’t waiting to flesh out his options — he has asked public planners at the Fairbanks North Star Borough for permission to ready the site. He said his request, due to be heard by the borough Planning Commission in August, will help on a few fronts. First, he said, it will start the discussion and give people plenty of time to do research on the technology.

Second, the proposal will help Reeves — a major landowner in the state — know whether his Ester site will be acceptable to the commission and neighbors or whether he needs to look at other land, possibly outside the borough.

“This isn’t a sprint,” Reeves said last week. “This is something that’s going to take a while for planning and engineering. I want everyone to have a chance to weigh in.”

Reeves said he started researching small-scale nuclear power proposals when another nuclear proposal cropped up in the town of Galena. That research intensified when energy prices spiked last year and “sky high” electricity bills forced him to turn off pumps that in past winters kept his ice towers — tall, vertical columns of ice near Fox created from water sprayed by warmed pipes — ready for climbers.

The proposal comes as talk of nuclear power gathers steam in much of the country. No U.S. nuclear plants have been built in decades. But some members of Congress and President Barack Obama have made room for nuclear power in their respective energy plans.

Traditional nuclear power plants are expensive to build and produce troublesome radioactive waste. Hyperion Power Generation, the company Reeves is looking to work with, reports on its Web site that its proposed modules are roughly the size of a hot tub but are powerful enough to run a 25-30 megawatt power plant. That’s roughly the same capacity as the Aurora Energy power plant in downtown Fairbanks. Hyperion said the modules will be extremely safe and produce only a softball-sized amount of waste from five to 10 years of operation.

Although the company promotes the safety of its units, its Web site says its buried units could require a “security detail.”

Deborah Blackwell, a vice president and spokeswoman for Hyperion, said her company is unsure exactly what security measures national nuclear regulators might require customers like Reeves to take. Executives are simply letting potential buyers know that “something” in the way of security might be required, she said.

Blackwell said her company is pushing to begin filling orders in the summer of 2013. But she said “pushing” shouldn’t imply executives are rushing.

“It’s not really a reactor in any way, shape or form in the way you’d think of a reactor,” Blackwell said by phone last week. She likened the company’s proposed modules to big, underground batteries that need zero maintenance until the fuel runs out.

Customers like Reeves would need an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Blackwell said.

Blackwell said roughly 300 potential investors have shown strong interest in the form of letters of intent or other documents. She said three of those potential buyers, including Reeves, are from Alaska.

While Reeves’ early plan is to look at the Ester site, he said any hiccups still would leave him with thousands of acres of land, some outside the borough’s boundaries, on which to consider building.

Tom Marsh, chairman of the Planning Commission, said the hearing on Reeves’ proposal will be a unique discussion for a board unfamiliar with energy issues and normally focused on smaller things like changes in code or home-level rezones.

“We haven’t done this topic before,” Marsh said. “It’s an issue we’re going to be very careful about.”

Blackwell said Hyperion expects to market its modules for about $30 million. Executives are aiming to make it so electricity would cost customers 10 cents per kilowatt-hour or less, which would put its price well below GVEA’s residential rates.

Reeves said he intends to sell the electricity to Golden Valley Electric Association. Such a sale would require a power-purchase agreement, and Kate Lamal, a vice president of supply for GVEA, confirmed executives have had brief conversations with Reeves about the prospect.

Reeves, who spends his days working for the state Transportation Department as a special assistant to the commissioner, said he likes the four-acre site — next door to the highway weigh station — because it’s accessible, close to town and near infrastructure that links power lines in Fairbanks with Southcentral Alaska.

Reeves said he thinks the potential for small-scale nuclear power in Alaska is immense. He said an even better solution — that of a large hydroelectric dam in Interior Alaska — seems perpetually stuck at the talking stage, and said technology like Hyperion’s is the next best thing.

The only downside, Reeves said, is the perception that nuclear power can’t be safe. He said he senses early reaction will be mixed and anticipates the discussion at the Planning Commission could take a while.

“I’ll do whatever I need to do to make it right, as long as it’s reasonable,” Reeves said of any conditions placed on his proposal.


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