The announcement that Wyoming has been chosen as the site for an advanced nuclear power plant called the Natrium reactor demonstration project was made with pretty striking language.
“Today’s announcement really, truly is game changing and monumental for Wyoming,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, speaking during the June 2 press conference.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm also joined the press conference virtually, concluding, “This Natrium reactor shows that the future of nuclear energy is here.”
Then the co-founder and chairman of TerraPower, the company developing the new reactor, gave remarks in a pre-recorded video address. You might recognize his name because it’s Bill Gates, of Microsoft.
“We all know that there are big transitions happening in energy. But as someone who has worked in the rapidly changing field of computing his entire life, I know that innovation is the key to maintaining leadership,” Gates said. “Natrium can play a role in helping Wyoming be a leader in energy, and it’s great for the state and great for the country.”
Despite Gates’ celebrity-genius endorsement, the potential of nuclear power is still overshadowed by major disasters of the past, like Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Chernobyl in present-day Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima in Japan just 10 years ago. Dr. George Griffith is one of the researchers who’s dedicated his career to trying to overcome the legacy of those events. Griffith is the small modular reactor lead at Idaho National Laboratory, one of the country’s premier nuclear science and technology labs.
“I think from the technology point of view, it’s almost like you imagine your cars from the ‘50s,” Griffith said. “Simple mechanics they had to work on, they were almost entirely mechanical compared to a car now with airbags, anti-lock brakes—much more sophisticated design.”
Griffith said the same kind of evolution has happened with nuclear power plants. Engineers have learned from the mistakes of the past and reactors today offer one of the lowest-consequence power sources available. That means they’re not just much safer—or “hyper-safe” in his words—but nuclear also avoids some of the drawbacks of other energy sources, like the carbon emissions of fossil fuels and environmental dependence of wind and solar.
“The sun goes down on a nuke plant, it doesn’t care,” the researcher said. “When the wind stops blowing, it doesn’t care.”
TerraPower’s Natrium reactor will provide 345 megawatts of baseload power using a molten salt energy storage system. That power is meant to supplement a growing mix of renewable energy on the power grid by the time the reactor gets up and running by the late 2020s. Gary Hoogeveen is president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp, which will be hosting the reactor at one of its four retiring coal plants in Wyoming.
“This technology can allow us to provide carbon free electricity 24/7, 365 [days a year]. And that is amazing,” Hoogeveen said, also during the June 2 press conference. “There’s no other word for it. It’s amazing.”
Hoogeveen and his counterpart at TerraPower have said the new plant will create up to thousands of highly-skilled construction jobs and then hundreds more well-paying positions to operate it. That’s good news for coal communities that have been hard hit by the industry’s demise. Griffith also said that if the Natrium reactor proves to be successful, he thinks it will kick off a domino effect.
“I have a personal belief that the first company that succeeds in any real way will open the floodgates for more successes down the road. Because [people] will go, ‘Okay, we can do that. And this is a good financial investment.’”
Still, the decades-long debate over the merit of nuclear power continues, and not all Wyoming stakeholders are on board. Chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council Marcia Westkott described the Natrium technology as “experimental and unproven” in a written statement released after the announcement. She also pointed out that the design still needs to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and raised concerns about high building costs, water use and the safety of storing nuclear waste on-site.
Both the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Wyoming Outdoor Council declined to comment for this story.
“I think there’s a lot of misconception around nuclear waste. It’s easy to portray the big 50-gallon drum with green ooze coming out of it, and that’s not what it is,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, a statewide trade group that represents coal, uranium, bentonite, trona and rare Earths companies.
“Nuclear fuel are basically fuel rods made of small pellets, and they’re stored in state of the art casks on-site,” Deti said. “It is just management like any other solid and hazardous waste, like we do all around the country.”
Griffith agreed that storing spent fuel in hardened structures presents a low risk, but he also said researchers can still do more work on developing better long-term solutions for nuclear waste.
In the meantime, Deti is hoping that the new plant may help revive Wyoming’s near-dormant uranium mining industry, the production of which fell to its lowest level on record last year. Asked whether TerraPower has made any kind of commitment to using domestic uranium, he said the answer to that is ‘No,’ but “what they have conveyed to domestic uranium producers is to get ready for that second and third step of more reactors coming online.”
Of course, this very first reactor still has plenty of hurdles to overcome, starting with convincing the Wyoming State Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee on permitting issues. The committee is scheduled to take public comments and hear from Rocky Mountain Power about the project on Friday, June 25.