The dubious track record of the “new” nuclear technology

By Kerry Drake, WyoFile

A friend of mine says he has no problem with nuclear or “experimental” projects, but not with the combination and Wyoming connected.

I think it’s an opinion that many share. Local residents know that the state must find a substitute for fossil fuels to boost its economy, but offering the Equality State as a testing ground for new, “advanced” nuclear technology seems too risky.

Count me as a member of this group. That brings me into conflict with proponents of the sodium nuclear demonstration project – such as government officials or Kemmerer officials anxious to save their city, which has been selected for the $ 4 billion facility. They say Wyoming needs to roll the dice and win the fortune.

That unreserved optimism is tempting. The vision of TerraPower founder Bill Gates is easy to admire: Nuclear power plants are replacing coal-fired power plants across the country, thus reducing the planet-destroying CO2 emissions. I understand why many want to jump on this bandwagon.

I don’t generally see myself as the “not-in-my-backyard” type. In this case, however, I think it is essential to question the project at every stage.

The reasons for this cautious approach are innumerable. But federal and state authorities want to dismantle regulatory barriers and move forward at full speed.

Security is at the top of the list. Yes, nuclear power has been part of the country’s power generation mix for decades, but Gates claims the sodium-sodium cooled fast reactor with energy storage based on molten salt will produce less nuclear waste and be safer than a conventional light water reactor.

However, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in March that severely questions such claims.

Sodium-cooled fast reactors, the report said, would likely be less “uranium efficient” and would not reduce the amount of waste that long-term isolation in a geological repository would require. Sodium refrigerant can burn if exposed to air or water, and the organization said a demonstration project like the one proposed in Kemmerer “could experience uncontrollable performance gains leading to a rapid meltdown”.

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Sip. If this scary scenario doesn’t justify stepping on the brakes in Wyoming, I don’t know what it would do.

But other important safety factors also deserve attention. Under pressure to find carbon-free solutions to tackle climate change, the Nuclear Oversight Commission has urged the streamlining of safety and environmental reviews for advanced nuclear projects. The Wyoming Outdoor Council noted that the NRC is considering using a “generic” environmental statement rather than detailed reviews of specific locations.

“We shouldn’t compromise health and safety to rush an untested technology, and Wyoming’s harsh climate and seismic activity underscores the need for site-specific reviews,” warned WOC.

Wyoming officials, led by Governor Mark Gordon, have enthusiastically endorsed the Sodium Project and treated it as a pure economic godsend. But not only is there no guarantee of such a boom. Indeed, the experiences of other states and nations strongly suggest that this will not be the case.

In an open letter to Gates, Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer who had worked in the industry for 50 years, called on the billionaire for using his fortune “to siphon off precious tax dollars to support your latest nuclear invention in Wyoming.”

TerraPower is massively involved in the Kemmerer project with a total of 2 billion US dollars. It’s money the company won’t get back if sodium doesn’t prove to be a reliable, safe alternative to fossil fuels that other facilities can efficiently recreate.

But without the support of the federal government, Gates probably wouldn’t be in the game. That’s because nuclear reactors are usually way over budget, if they get completed at all. The 345-megawatt sodium project was originally announced as a $ 1 billion facility, but the price has quickly quadrupled.

President Joe Biden’s administration is committed to meeting international climate change mitigation goals and advocates for sodium. The Department of Energy is bringing Gates together dollar for dollar to develop a “new” sodium-cooled reactor technology that has failed since it was first introduced on the US submarine Seawolf in the 1950s.

Other attempts include the privately financed Fermi 1 site near Lake Erie, which was shut down in 1966 after a partial meltdown; and on the Clinch River in Tennessee. The latter, a publicly funded project, was plagued by delays and huge cost overruns and was finally abandoned by Congress in the mid-1980s due to grave security concerns.

In his letter to Gates, Gunderson described the epic failure of the sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor at Monju, Japan. Construction took a decade and was shut down after four months in 1995 due to a sodium leak and fire. Monju was only reopened in 2010 and finally discontinued a year later after a refueling accident.

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The cost to the Japanese government? More than $ 11 billion. Meanwhile, after decades of costly research, France’s nuclear agency has put the construction of a prototype sodium-cooled nuclear reactor on hold.

“So now is the time to stop the sodium marketing hype and unleash these precious public funds to use affordable and reliable renewable energy for the timeframe required to prevent catastrophic climate crises!” Gunderson concluded .

Many scientists agree. “The recent attention to nuclear energy is being driven entirely by the industry’s dwindling desperation for capital and the associated lobby that portrays it as a solution to climate change,” said Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace to Deutsche Welle, a German news organization. “… It does this too late and at too high a cost.”

The Kemmerer project at the Naughton coal-fired power station, owned by Rocky Mountain Power, has a timeline that will be difficult to meet unless every phase goes smoothly – something almost unknown in the nuclear industry. If the Nuclear Supervision Commission approves the permits, construction would begin in 2024 and the reactor would not be operational until four years later.

PacifiCorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, estimates that around 2,000 workers will be required to build the Kemmerer facility and 250 to operate. It presents the ultimate lottery ticket for a small mining community whose future looked mightily bleak when PacifiCorp announced plans to shut down the coal-fired power station.

So here’s today’s $ 4 billion question: What happens to Kemmerer and Wyoming if TerraPower’s critics are right and the plug is ultimately pulled for safety or economic reasons?

Wyoming will survive, but not at no cost. It will have lost all of the time and energy the state could have invested in finding long-term solutions to diversify its economy and end its dependence on fossil fuels.

And Kemmerer? The city has seen so much uncertainty in recent years that I hope it will use any respite the nuclear industry gives to its advantage. The state government must step in and ask TerraPower to pay enough to limit the damage to ensure Kemmerer does not get left in the lurch.

If Gates wants to ride into town and promises to be its economic savior, Wyoming must hold on to it. Don’t mess with us, partner.

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WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on the people, places, and policies of Wyoming.

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