SMRs touted as solution to Puerto Rico’s power problems

Puerto Rico’s power system has been devastated by hurricanes, years of bad political choices, and badly maintained infrastructure, and plans to overhaul the island’s grid must incorporate nuclear, says a team of Puerto Rican engineers working in the U.S. nuclear power industry.

Workers of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority (PREPA) repair part of the grid eight months after Hurricane Maria. (Source: Reuters/Alvin Baez)

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Focus is currently on renewable energy, though the group of volunteers which formed "The Nuclear Alternative Project" (NAP), which they hope will move to phase 2 in coming months, say nuclear must also be part of the mix.

In 2019, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico approved an ambitious bill (PS 1121) which aims for power to be produced from 100% renewable (solar and wind) by 2050 and 40% renewables by 2025, including a ban on coal plants by 2028, in what has been called the island’s own “Green New Deal”.

The bill came just two years after the Catagory 5 Hurricane Maria ploughed across the island leaving thousands dead, at least $90 billion in damage, and 95% of the island without power. Five months after the storm at least quarter of the population still had no electricity.

It wasn’t the first time a hurricane had hobbled the country’s power supply.    

“After Hurricane George in 1998, I remember we lost power for months and after, everyone was talking about how we’ve got to fix the system, to get it in better shape, but nothing happened. People know the grid is unstable and is unreliable. We’ve been having these issues for a long time,” says Angel Reyes, Licensed Senior Reactor Operator and Shift Technical Advisor at Exelon Nuclear and a leader of the NAP.

The project’s preliminary feasibility study for small modular reactors and microreactors for Puerto Rico was released in May 2020, and the team of volunteers behind it is hoping they will be cleared by U.S. legislators to advance to the next stage in the coming months.

Affordable power

Puerto Rico has some of the most expensive electricity prices of any U.S. state, at 19.91 cents/KWh compared to the national average of 12.9 cents/KWh. It is that, as much as reliability, that is driving residents, who are some of the poorest in the Unites States, to seek alternatives.

While solar power, in particular, is being sold to the populace as a way to cut bills in an environmentally friendly manner, the NAP team point out that, not only can the island spend weeks under cloud cover, boosting the case for a baseload generator, but that solar can also be expensive when storage is factored in.

Having a strong and reliable baseload like advanced nuclear generation can help ease the energy costs, they say. 

“People are starting to like the idea that their bill would be half what they pay now … but the problem is the small print. You have to read and educate and understand how much it’s really going to cost and how efficient the equipment will be throughout the life cycle,” says Reyes.

“That is where advanced nuclear comes into play; to support renewables as a strong and reliable baseload for the long-term stable operation of the grid.” 

The island’s power company, PREPA, currently in the process of privatization, expects some 3,600 MW of power generation to come offline in the next 10 years and their transition plan includes a mix of renewables and natural gas-powered plants.  

Power from SMRs and microreactors can be cost competitive when compared with natural gas generation from mobile gas units and combined cycle units, which have been proposed as part of the island’s fleet replacement, and the report calls for legislative amendments to maximize nuclear competitiveness.

Both the general population and the politicians are coming around to the idea of bringing nuclear into the mix.

In a NAP survey of over 3,000 residents of a mix of ages and educational backgrounds, 94% were interested in continuing to explore the option of nuclear energy for the island.

Extreme weather events and earthquakes are not a concern for nuclear, the NAP authors say, addressing two of the main worries for residents.

“Under worst conditions, like a hurricane, we know from operating experience in the United States, a nuclear power plant can be 100% reliable. All of that was captured in this study … This will be more specific in phase two of the study when we look at potential sites,” says Reyes.

The presence of a nuclear power station during Maria would have meant that there would have been continued power on the island, he insists, a statement backed up by the developers of advanced nuclear power plants currently in development, who say their reactors are inherently safe and have been designed to withstand huge environmental impact, partly as a response to the disaster at Fukushima.

The team is in talks with such developers including GEH Hitachi Nuclear, NuScale, Westinghouse and X-Energy.

Timeline for Earliest Case Scenario Deployment in Puerto Rico 

(Source: The Nuclear Alternative Project) 

Vital economic infrastructure

As Department of Energy's office of nuclear energy reviews the proposal for phase two of project, the team believes the mainland’s dependance on Puerto Rico for pharmaceuticals, such as insulin, is an extra drive to ensure that the new power infrastructure is reliable, says Valerie Lugo, entrepreneur and COO of NAP. 

“After Maria, the United States has started looking at Puerto Rico as an important piece in the game. The reason for that is the pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico is very important for U.S. National Security,” says Lugo. 

“With us being affected by Maria for so long, a lot of people on the mainland were not able to receive medicines. So, they were finally able to understand that Puerto Rico is an important part of the pharmaceutical industry supply chain, and this is probably why the Department of Energy is helping us, because we are on the map, we make a difference.” 

Puerto Rico’s top three exports – manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and medicine, medical equipment and supplies, and basic chemicals – made up almost 90% of the territory’s total exports in 2019, or at least a third of its gross domestic product, according to U.S. data, with pharma giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Baxter housing major operations on the island.

Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing exports to the mainland from the island were worth $16.4 billion that year, higher than the value from the next two highest states, California and Indiana, combined. An estimated 8% of all medicines consumed by U.S. citizens comes from Puerto Rico, according to then Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb.  

The inclusion of nuclear alongside renewables, an overhaul of the grid, and a new corporate structure following the privatization of the power company, could help build back a better power system that has been plagued with problems.

“What happened with PREPA is that they started to make decisions that ignored good industry management and engineering practices,” says Jesus Nuñez, senior structural engineer at Bechtel Corporation and CEO of the project.    

“The privatization is not perfect, but I see it as an opportunity.” 

By Paul Day