Wyoming is said to be “Ground Zero” for advanced nuclear power plants
Wyoming will become “Ground Zero” as home to the first of a new generation of nuclear power plants to be developed through a diverse public-private partnership that includes Bill Gates, officials said Wednesday.
The advanced nuclear energy demonstration facility will replace one of four coal-fired power plants in PacifiCorp’s Wyoming energy system: either Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Naughton in Kemmerer, Dave Johnston near Glenrock, or WyoDak in Campbell County. The Sodium Reactor Project is expected to produce a working nuclear power plant in Wyoming within seven years, the first of its kind in the United States to create jobs in construction and operations.
Other details have yet to be released, including an exact timeline for construction and funding details, and some have concerns about issues such as waste and water use. But on Wednesday morning state and federal officials gathered to deliver the news from the Capitol split rosy projections on the impact of the project on Wyoming’s economy and the role of the state in the cutting edge of energy technologies.
“Today’s announcement is truly groundbreaking and monumental for Wyoming,” said Governor Mark Gordon during the press briefing on Wednesday.
The multi-billion dollar project is a joint effort by PacifiCorp, TerraPower, and the US Department of Energy, which is expected to produce a 345 megawatt power plant in Wyoming.
Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is also the founder and chairman of TerraPower. In a taped video statement, Gates said the Sodium Project is set to represent a dramatic change in the performance, safety and cost of nuclear energy. It is his hope, he said, that the project will be successful by “building on the foundations laid by Wyoming’s energy workers.
TerraPower Founder and Chairman Bill Gates speaks on a taped video message during the press conference announcing efforts to advance a sodium reactor demonstration project in Wyoming on June 2, 2021 at the Wyoming Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. (Michael Cummo / Wyoming Tribune Eagle / Wyoming News Exchange)
“Wyoming has been an energy leader for over a century, and we hope our investment in sodium will enable Wyoming to stay on top for decades to come,” said Gates.
The advanced nuclear power plant would use a 345 megawatt sodium-cooled fast reactor combined with an energy storage system for molten salt. Its thermal storage has the potential to increase the system’s output to 500 megawatts for more than five and a half hours if required. The system due to come to Wyoming is a demonstration project where developers hope to see the sodium system in use nationwide.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the Biden administration sees the sodium project as a starting point for replacing fossil fuel energy in the US in a way that doesn’t leave mining communities out in the rain.
“I think this is how we can leave fossil fuel communities that have literally propelled our country and economy for decades,” Granholm said on a live video stream. “We can lead them into the clean energy future. They strengthened our past – we want them to fuel our future. As with the President’s proposal, the American Jobs Plan, this administration will see to it that we start more nuclear demonstration projects across the country. ”
Earlier this year, Gordon set a goal for Wyoming to capture more carbon than it emits. Gordon was firmly convinced on Wednesday that he would continue to see fossil fuels as part of the state’s energy portfolio going forward.
“I’m not going to give up any of our fossil fuel industries,” he said. “It is absolutely necessary for our state.”
PacifiCorp revealed plans for in late 2019 go into retirement several coal-fired power plants in the region ahead of scheduleincluding in the state’s Jim Bridger and Naughton works. It was one of many recent blows to the ailing coal industry that the state legislature has been work to support themselves even if market forces cause a decline.
Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, PacifiCorp’s Wyoming, Idaho and Utah business unit, said coal-fired power plants needed to be shut down and replaced with something that would add reliable power to the grid, despite finding that the sodium news won did not trigger accelerated efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants in Wyoming.
PacifiCorp’s Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant just outside Glenrock is one of the sites for the location of the advanced Sodium nuclear power plant, which was announced on June 2, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer / WyoFile)
“The economy will stand alone whether coal-fired power plants continue to operate or not,” said Hoogeveen.
But with the goal of decarbonizing while maintaining constant power for customers, Hoogeveen said nuclear power will be crucial to compliment the mix.
“As a utility company in the utility industry, we know, like everyone else in the utility industry, that you can’t use 100% renewable energy and battery power and operate it around the clock – not with the latest technology we have,” he said. “That is the exciting thing about these days, because with this technology we can supply CO2-free electricity around the clock, 365 days a year. And that’s amazing. There is no other word for it. “
US Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Who also attended the announcement on Wednesday, stressed the bipartisan nature of Washington, DC’s politics, which had brought the issue to the fore. He specifically cited the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, which he helped to introduce and led through Congress.
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Despite a united front of diverse public and private interests backing the project, Barrasso said “there are many hurdles to overcome”, noting that the inter-agency regulatory process will be extensive. Chris Levesque, CEO and President of TerraPower, said there was, however, a mandate from Congress to move this forward quickly. At the beginning of the year, the Biden government announced its goal of achieving net-zero macroeconomic emissions by 2050 and a carbon-free power grid by 2035.
“The motivator is that we need this clean energy on the grid by 2030,” said Levesque. “With that, the congress created a real urgency.”
What was less clear, however, was how much the project would ultimately cost. There will be a 50-50 share of the cost between the private sector, in this case TerraPower, and the public, Levesque said. The US Department of Energy awarded TerraPower $ 80 million in 2020 to demonstrate its sodium technology.
“It’s really a public-private partnership and risk-sharing between companies like TerraPower and the government, to be honest,” Levesque said.
Several proponents of the project noted Wednesday that sodium reactors would produce two-thirds less waste than the 95 water-cooled plants currently operating in the United States.
Wyoming lawmakers have long toured the state’s interim storage facility for the state’s spent nuclear fuel, and in 2019 showed a brief interest in legislation that would empower the governor’s office to investigate whether Store nuclear waste in Wyoming communities would be doable. The issue was dropped after it was clarified that the governor would not need legal permission to work with the Department of Energy on the matter.
Gordon said Wednesday that Wyoming “does not want to be a garbage dump for the rest of the nation.”
“Just to emphasize that this is not a way of solving the country’s waste problems on Wyoming’s back,” said Gordon.
Dave Eskelsen inspects the block 3 coal mill at the Naughton power station. The unit was decommissioned in January 2019. Behind him, Plant Manager Rodger Holt looks down from the two-story machine that environmental regulations and market forces have sidelined. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
There are also opportunities, Barrasso said, to promote uranium mining in Wyoming that could power the reactors. As the No. 1 uranium producer in the country, he said it was a great opportunity to ensure energy security.
“Russia has flooded the market with uranium and we want to make sure we have a stable source from a national security standpoint and Wyoming is the best place to do that,” he said.
Marcia Westkott, landowner advocate for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, praised efforts to reduce carbon emissions and said there were questions about the use of an “experimental and unproven” technology. She called the announcement premature because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to license a design.
Levesque noted during the press conference that the US has not had a “great track record” of licensing in about 20 years, but that Barrasso’s nuclear bill would empower the Nuclear Oversight Commission to streamline the process.
The PRBRC also had questions about the cost of building the facility, how much water would be used and how waste would be stored, Westkott said. Uranium mining would not replace lost coal revenues, she said, as there are no license fees and a significantly lower severance tax.
Ultimately, Westkott said Wednesday’s announcement was a distraction from answering Wyoming’s most pressing questions about its economy.
“Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this recent claim of a ‘silver bullet’ to save the Wyoming economy is that it is once again diverting attention from our very real crisis of revenue, jobs and community survival,” Westkott said. “Wyoming’s elected leaders have still not come up with a real plan to tackle job losses, falling revenues and the breakup of coal communities. This speculative feasibility study will not do that. “
This story is supported by a grant from Wyoming’s established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the National Science Foundation.