Unlucky Puerto Rico can’t get a break – from crushing killer hurricanes, that is. So is installing nuclear energy power plants there a wise move? It’s an idea being bandied about quite seriously.
By one count, Puerto Rico has been visited 59 times by hurricanes or tropical storms since the Great Hurricane of 1780 which caused extensive damage to the island’s coastal areas when it passed nearby. The Commonwealth is an unincorporated United States territory situated about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida at the southern tip of the continental mainland.
Puerto Ricans use the U.S. dollar. The United States government controls the Commonwealth’s economy, trade, and public services. Boat and air traffic, as well as education, are subject to U.S. law. There is a territorial police force but the U.S. military is responsible for defending the island.
The island of Puerto Rico isn’t very big, only about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide. You’ll find it in the Caribbean archipelago known as the Greater Antilles east of the island of Hispaniola.
The 2017 U.S. Census estimated that some 3.3 million people lived in Puerto Rico. That number fell after Hurricane Maria destroyed many homes and wiped out power supplies in September 2017, forcing many to seek refuge on the U.S. mainland.
Maria was a monstrous Category 5 storm, accepted as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect Puerto Rico and neighboring islands Dominica and St Croix. With total losses estimated at about $92 billion, mostly in Puerto Rico, Maria was the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.
Puerto Rico also suffered catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis. The official death toll came to 2,975 victims. Most island habitation suffered from flooding and no resources, aggravated by a slow relief process.
Hurricane Irma, also a Cat 5 hurricane, had churned over Puerto Rico only two weeks earlier. Irma is known to have killed three people in Puerto Rico and inflicted severe property damage and power outages.
Maria took out much of Puerto Rico’s electric grid in 2017. U.S. and, according to research completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures, territorial officials “decided to reimagine a resilient and reliable energy system” that favored renewable power sources with battery storage.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded a feasibility study performed by the Nuclear Alternative Project (NAP) that promoted advanced small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors to generate dispatchable and resilient power to Puerto Rico.
“Dispatchable generation” means a source of electricity can be used on demand and dispatched when requested by power grid operators, based on market needs. Dispatchable generators can be turned on or off, or adjust their power output according to an order. Non-dispatchable renewable energy sources include wind and solar power which can’t be provided on demand when there is no wind or sunlight and therefore can’t be controlled by grid operators.
“Resilient power” is trickier to define because industry stakeholders have no agreed-upon meaning or metrics for the trendy term. Resilience in the energy sector refers to more than system reliability. It factors in consequences to the electricity system and other critical infrastructure from increasingly likely high-impact external events – such as hurricanes and flooding caused by them.
Power with higher resilience is desirable since it indicates a system’s improved ability to respond to catastrophic external forces.
The NAP’s proposed new grid in Puerto Rico would be a decentralized network of eight regional grids that can self-isolate or work together. The nuclear advocates suggested that SMRs and microreactors could integrate with renewables and help stabilize these regional systems with dispatchable power that has zero carbon emissions.
Essentially, the U.S. DEO is proposing that Puerto Ricans trade environmental threats: lose greenhouse gases and gain radioactive pollution.
Is this a good deal in an area known for hurricanes that destroy everything in their path?
Puerto Ricans aren’t at all sure. The DEO identified negative public opinion as a significant obstacle to a nuclear power project like this.
In June 2020, Puerto Rico government officials announced that a group of U.S. and Canadian companies will take over the transmission and distribution system of the island’s P.R. Electric Power Authority (Prepa). Prepa was founded in 1941 and became a public utility in 1979.
Now, for the first time, utilities in Puerto Rico will be managed by private concerns. U.S.-based companies Quanta Services Inc. and IEM teamed up with Canadian firm ATCO under a 15-year $1.5 billion contract. Under the deal, the Puerto Rican power company will retain ownership of the transmission and distribution system as part of a public-private partnership (P3).
Will Prepa decide to go nuclear despite the obvious threat of reactor flooding in coastal regions? Only time – and tide – will tell.