GILLETTE — A prototype nuclear facility promises to bolster Wyoming’s status as the nation’s leader in energy production even as the state’s once-dominant thermal coal mines continue a prolonged meltdown.
This week’s announcement that the Cowboy State will be home to the state-of-the-art Natrium nuclear reactor demonstration project is one of the rare times that deserves the often-used cliché “game-changer.”
The multi-billion dollar nuclear power plant is the product of TerraPower, owned by Bill Gates, with partnerships with Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy.
It breaks the mold of traditional nuclear plants in that it’s smaller, modular and designed to plug in and replace existing coal-fired power plants as they retire.
As part of Gov. Mark Gordon’s “all-of-the-above” mission in energy production, the Natrium reactor is a unique opportunity for Wyoming and could revolutionize clean power generation for the United States for decades, said Rob Godby, a leading energy economist and interim dean of the University of Wyoming College of Business.
“This is a very different reactor with modern controlled technologies,” he said. “If you get past energy source preference, nuclear has a lot of potential benefits, especially with the design they’re going to build.”
That design is unique in that it’s almost a “plug-and-go” solution for the accelerating schedule of retiring coal-fired power plants around the nation, Godby said. And while the focus now is on coal generation, that will shift to natural gas after coal is out of the mix.
The Natrium’s modular design is smaller than most traditional nuclear plants, which use decades-old technology and haven’t changed much in a couple of generations, he said. By building at the retiring plant sites, the nuclear facilities already will have access to the power grid and transmission.
Even more important for those communities where those plants are located, the nuclear plant will provide long-term jobs for the skilled workforces already in place, Godby said. That means negating the economic impact of closing a coal- or gas-fired plant.
“The upsides are that this is a high-tech area,” he said. “That leads to some potential economic development and a technology-based economy as part of our diversification strategy.
“A nuclear plant in this form preserves jobs locally, and those are high-paying jobs and high-skilled jobs. This will replace jobs in a way renewables can’t. It also preserves local taxes. When you shut down a power plant, that has an immediate shock to the economy,” said Godby.
The trickle-down impact includes a renewed focus on nuclear research and education at the University of Wyoming, along with the state’s community college system.
That means the potential to see communities across the state offering nuclear options along with the already specialized education for other important industries, said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Gillette-based Energy Capital Economic Development.
A specific location hasn’t been determined, but it will be at one of four of Rocky Mountain Power’s plants in Wyoming: the Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs, the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock, the Naughton plant at Kemmerer or the Wyodak plant near Gillette.
The Wyodak power plant is scheduled to retire in 2039. That retirement date is further out than the other three plants.
“This is a good project for Campbell County,” Christopherson said, citing the county already becoming known as one of the nation’s leading areas for carbon capture, sequestration and utilization research. A groundbreaking nuclear facility fits with the movement toward energy innovation that’s happening here.
“We are on the leading edge of carbon research with all the things we’re doing,” he said. “We just have a bunch of different carbon projects. We have a lot of stuff going on, which is bringing a lot of national attention to us.
“Gillette has long been the energy capital of the nation.”
That expansion continues Monday with local and state officials breaking ground on the Wyoming Innovation Center, an energy-focused business incubator located at the former Fort Union coal mine site north of Gillette.
An announcement on the nuclear power plant location is expected later this year.
Wednesday’s press conference to announce the Natrium reactor demonstration project choosing Wyoming brought out the big guns. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm attended virtually and Gates touted the TerraPower technology in a video statement. Gates’ billionaire buddy Warren Buffett also is involved with the project.
Put simply, nuclear power is the clear and logical choice for the United States and the world to achieve their goals of eliminating CO2 emissions, Gates said.
“We think Natrium will be a game-changer for the energy industry,” he said.
For Wyoming, it’s an opportunity to cement a swing in the state’s reputation as the leading coal producer and contributor to climate change to being on the front lines of reinventing the U.S. electricity generation portfolio, Gordon said.
“This is our fastest and clearest course to becoming carbon negative,” he said. “Nuclear power is clearly a part of my all-of-the-above strategy.”
The new technology touted by Gates, Gordon and the federal government uses a sodium fast reactor that works much more quickly and efficiently than traditional water-cooled reactors, according to natrium.com.
The modular design means the reactor can expand in the future and also can easily adapt to whichever coal- or gas-fired footprint it replaces.
The first demonstration plant in Wyoming will generate 345 megawatts of power with a capacity for storage to ramp that up to a 500 MW capacity for more than five hours. More importantly, it’s expected to be four times more fuel efficient than light water reactors and its construction to use 80-percent less nuclear-grade concrete per MW.
Some of the other benefits touted at this week’s announcement is that the Natrium has potential to be a pilot that can become the preferred solution in replacing fossil fuels in the U.S. energy portfolio. It can be a model for a generation of smaller, more flexible nuclear plants.
More technically, Natrium boasts that its main component, called the “Energy Island,” can be built and operated without having to meet any nuclear regulatory requirements. That means a much more streamlined process of licensing and permitting.
It also can be built more quickly and cost-effectively. And while it was touted this week as a potential multi-billion dollar project, much of that will be financed by Pacificorp, a subsidiary of Rocky Mountain Power.
Another potential economic driver not mentioned at this week’s announcement is the Natrium also being able to produce hydrogen, Godby said.
“That would be green hydrogen, not using fossil fuel feed stocks and not producing carbon emissions,” he said. “One of the operational opportunities is a plant like this could produce hydrogen when it’s not making power.”
Hydrogen is important because it can be used to make other types of fuels, which will be more in demand as the movement for electric vehicles grows, Godby said. One industry especially in need of a new fuel source is airlines.
“When you have electricity and you have a source of hydrocarbon, you can make a biofuel,” he said. “You can also use these power plants for production of that type of energy.
“As we decarbonize the economy, we have to come up with solutions for things we want to continue to do, like long-distance hauling and flying airplanes,” said Godby.
With a seven-year deadline to have the Natrium up and running, the project has been on a fast track since it was awarded an $80 million federal research grant last year.
There are still many unanswered questions and theories to prove, but the potential is exciting to contemplate, Godby said.
“There are a lot of open questions, but one of the things we know is we have to get (carbon free) much faster than we’ve been going,” he said. “The more choices we have, the better.
“This nuclear power option can potentially work in Wyoming and it can have benefits nationally and have economic development statewide. What we’re talking about here is solutions. Does that come with risks in some people’s eyes? Yes, but we have to address that.”
As for the seven-year clock that’s ticking on the Natrium demonstration project, it’s aggressive for a new nuclear technology, Godby said.
“But if anybody can do it, you’ve got Bill Gates behind this,” he said. “It won’t be easy, but the reality is this is a big lift, but you have the largest utility in the state and one of the largest in the country behind this.”
Some of those risks were highlighted by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan-based environmental advocacy group, in response to this week’s announcement.
“This technology is still experimental and unproven,” said the group’s chairperson Marcia Westkott in a press release. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to license a design, so this announcement appears to be premature.”
Westkott also said some other serious questions haven’t been addressed, like how much the plant will cost, where it will get the water it needs to operate and how its radioactive waste will be stored.
She also warned that the Natrium reactor isn’t “a silver bullet” solution to the state’s economic woes.
The announcement “once again diverts away from our very real crisis in revenue, jobs and community survival,” Westkott said. “Wyoming’s elected leaders have still not come forward with a real plan to address lost jobs, declining revenues and the dissolution of coal communities.”
Godby agrees on at least one aspect of the Resource Council’s concerns.
“This will not replace the severance tax loss Wyoming is going to face as its fossil fuel sector declines,” he said. “There is no source of energy you can just drop in to fill that hole.”
While nuclear energy may not be the overall answer to Wyoming’s energy downturn, “it is huge for our uranium industry,” said Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association.
Much of the national focus is on the state’s coal and oil industries, but Wyoming also is the nation’s largest producer of uranium, Deti said. The Natrium plant could use Wyoming uranium, which could be the beginning of a surge for that industry, especially if it’s successful and more Natrium plants are built around the United States as fossil fuel plants retire.
“As coal plants retire, this is a great option,” Deti said. “It’s also a kick-start to revitalize our nuclear industry. If we’re going the road of zero emissions, nuclear is the way to go. It’s proven technology and we’re going to work with TerraPower to get this demonstration plant up.”
Deti said domestic uranium has “been on the sidelines on the nuclear issue for a long time, and it’s time we get back on the field.”
With the support of Gates, Buffett, Gordon and President Joe Biden’s administration, Natrium represents a so-far rare instance of bipartisan support, Deti said.
Add in the work of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, who sponsored and pushed critical legislation to support the project and move it forward, and Natrium “has got some beef behind it. It’s the real deal,” he said.
Questions and challenges aside, you can’t blame Wyoming officials and residents for being excited about embarking on another power trip.