Could a planned nuclear reactor in Wyoming provide any clue to Colorado’s energy future?

Photo courtesy of Getty Imagesnews

The Bill Gates-sponsored project has the potential to provide a blueprint for expanding nuclear power across Rocky Mountain West.

August 27, 2021

As early as next month, Washington-based TerraPower will select an aging coal-fired power plant in Wyoming to build the first nuclear reactor of its kind. It’s a company backed by Bill Gates who said it will revolutionize the American nuclear industry. If successful, the reactor could have a dramatic impact on future energy production across Rocky Mountain West and Colorado, while putting wider pressure on reducing CO2 emissions this century.

The sodium reactor – recognized across the country as a safer alternative to traditional light water reactors – will be located in one of four locations in Wyoming and is a joint venture between TerraPower (founded by Gates), PacifiCorp of Berkshire Hathaway Energy and the United States Energy Agency.

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The advanced nuclear energy demonstration plant would produce 375 megawatts at its base level and could deliver up to 500 megawatts continuously for almost six hours if required. At that time, the system would generate enough electricity for around 400,000 households.

The reactor, which TerraPower would build and then turn over to PacifiCorp for operation, could serve as a blueprint for nuclear expansion in states like Colorado, where its only nuclear power plant closed in 1989.

“Wyoming offers an absolutely crucial piece that could help people feel more secure about nuclear safety and how they can generate electricity,” said Michael H. Fox, professor emeritus at Colorado State University who studies global warming studied and the author Why We Need Nuclear Power. wrote: The environmental case. “If the Wyoming Project does what it says on the tin, it could be groundbreaking.”

In conventional light water nuclear power plants, water absorbs heat generated by fission, which is converted into steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. The problem with these reactors, however, is that the steam can create high pressure in the reactor as well and cause a catastrophic failure, like in 1979 on Three Mile Island.

In contrast, TerraPower’s sodium reactor would use liquid sodium as a coolant. Liquid sodium has a higher boiling point than water and can absorb more heat, which prevents high pressure build-up in the reactor.

TerraPowerRendering of the sodium reactor and energy storage system. Image courtesy of TerraPower

Wyoming officials have praised the project. Governor Mark Gordon called the future facility an effective way for the state to implement federally mandated clean energy initiatives while allowing fossil fuel production. The facility, Gordon said earlier this year, would give Wyoming – one of the largest fossil fuel producing states – an opportunity to become carbon negative in the future. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said this summer the reactor “will be a boon to residents who get electricity from it,” adding that the facility would help Wyoming lead the nation into the future of clean energy production.

According to TerraPower, the Wyoming project would cost approximately $ 4 billion and be shared between its company and the federal government. When completed, the facility would open in 2028 and employ 250 people until it began generating power for PacifiCorp customers in California, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

“This is an aggressive schedule, but we are moving at the speed of light for nuclear,” Jeff Navin, spokesman for TerraPower told 5280. He says the company wants to act quickly to position itself as a clean energy alternative for other states and utilities Aim to meet federal emissions guidelines for 2035 and beyond. “While we’re building more [nuclear plants], the costs go down. We want to be an option in these places. “

This includes Colorado, where government government targets for 2030 mandate drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and utilities require 80 percent decarbonization. Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, says state modeling suggests Colorado can reduce up to 90 percent from renewables like solar and wind by 2050, but “needs a solid carbon-free generation to.” to reach the next 10 percent “. . “

While the state will review “all options,” Toor warns that nuclear power is just one of several alternatives in Colorado – including green hydrogen and gas-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage – and those options will not be considered for years. “What we do know is that in the next ten years, more expensive coal production will be replaced by wind and solar energy,” says Toor. “That is our focus at the moment. For us, everything revolves around renewable energies. Nobody can choose the other winners yet. “

A proposed “clean energy” site in Pueblo County would have provided land for a nuclear power plant. However, the idea was criticized by environmentalists for water and security issues and was killed by district officials in 2011 after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. And in 2020, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University reported persistent public fears across the country about nuclear power, even when compared to much dirtier fossil fuels. In its report, the research team says it would require “significant regulatory pressure on fossil fuels” to move the public to nuclear power in the future.

“This project is absolutely designed to provide future customers in other locations with proof that we can build on time and on budget and that it can be operated safely for decades,” says Navin. “This is the first of many. This is not a science experiment. We will use that. “

Colorado hadn’t had a nuclear power plant in more than 30 years when nuclear power ended at Fort St. Vrain. This facility, which operated as a high-temperature gas-cooled site for a decade to compete with light hydropower plants, is the only reactor built in the state. While it was considered a technical success, it served as a proof-of-concept for advanced technology and faced extensive maintenance issues as well as expensive fixes.

TerraPower executives believe that a successful Wyoming sodium operation could bring longtime anti-nuclear opponents to the table and create openings in states that want to dramatically change energy portfolios. CSU’s Fox adds that Gates’ name gives the project an aura of technical force and makes the plan “far more realistic to be successfully completed and operated”.

The Wyoming Project isn’t the only nuclear power plant planned in the west. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy approved a $ 1.4 billion multi-year co-payment to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems for a 720-megawatt NuScale module facility at Idaho National Laboratory. This project, if successful, could dramatically reduce modular construction costs in future locations and provide utilities with even more options across the board.

“States and utilities will have to look at more energy sources to fill in the gaps,” says Navin of TerraPower. “Wind comes and goes. Solar comes and goes. People in Denver and Salt Lake City want to know that when they flip a light switch, the power will come on. They need available energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and nuclear energy fulfills this role. “

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