First of its kind nuclear power plant to be built in Wyoming

Photo of Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and Wyoming Senator John Barrasso
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, left, and U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., smile and joke during the press conference announcing efforts to advance a Natrium reactor demonstration project at a retiring coal plant Wednesday, June 2, 2021, inside the Wyoming Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. The location of the project is set to be announced later this year. (Photo: Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle, used with permission of Rocky Mountain Power)

State representatives, Secretary of Energy, Bill Gates, and others join Governor in announcing plans to construct Natrium reactor in Wyoming

June 2 could be big in Wyoming energy history – and we’ll probably know by end of year.

Joined by representatives of TerraPower, Rocky Mountain Power, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, and Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon announced Wyoming was selected to host a first-of-its-kind nuclear power plant that could revolutionize the electrical generating industry.

Referred to as Natrium (Latin for sodium), the new reactor design uses TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear technology. The Natrium reactor in Wyoming would serve as a demonstration project for the technology and is in partnership with the DOE. The goal is to validate the design, construction, and operations of the Natrium reactor.

“I am thrilled to see Wyoming selected for this demonstration pilot project, as our great state is the perfect place for this type of innovative utility facility and our coal-experienced workforce is looking forward to the jobs this project will provide,” Gordon said.

The announcement comes after Gordon committed to leading the state towards net negative carbon earlier this year. Gordon’s commitment advocated for the continued use of fossil fuels and the advancement of technologies that would provide baseload power.

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Gordon took the opportunity yesterday to further advocate for investments in carbon capture, one of the few remaining options to help sustain Wyoming’s coal industry in the new CO2-focused world. 

“I fully support moving ahead with this project, but I stress that this does not replace the need for utility companies and private companies to invest in carbon capture,” Gordon said.

The governor also ‘encouraged’ “the Department of Energy to provide grants for not only research, but for the commercialization of carbon capture facilities in the U.S., particularly in Wyoming instead of Norway.”

The players

Gates launched TerraPower in 2008 as a nuclear innovation company.

Earlier that decade, the billionaire founder of Microsoft decided he wanted to use technology to address the challenges of both global energy poverty and climate change. Gates recognized the importance of nuclear energy in meeting those goals and said nuclear power needed to innovate just like other industries and it needed to be less expensive and make an even stronger case on safety.

“Nuclear power is the only carbon-free energy source we have that can deliver large amounts of power day and night through every season almost anywhere on earth,” Gates said via video Wednesday. “And it’s been proven to work on a large scale.”

Photo: Bill Gates during Natrium announcement
Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, founder of TerraPower, addresses the press during the Natrium announcement on June 3, 2021. (Screenshot: State of Wyoming Streaming Video, Public Domain)

TerraPower has worked on several nuclear technology advancements, but the announcement yesterday focused on the Natrium reactor developed by it and GE Hitachi Nuclear.

A desire of the Trump administration, which has received renewed focus from the Biden administration, was the advancement of smaller, less expensive nuclear reactors that were easier to construct and based upon common designs.

To date, almost all nuclear power plants are individually designed and constructed. Every plant is different and design, permitting, and construction costs are driven higher as a result. The goal of the two administrations has been to bring efficiencies and scale to the nuclear power industry.

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In reference to the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said, “This administration will see to it that we launch more nuclear energy demonstration projects across the country.” Granholm, a Biden administration cabinet appointee, joined the announcement via Zoom.

Photo: Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm joined the announcement via Zoom from her office in Washington, D.C. to announce the Natrium project to be constructed in Wyoming. (Screenshot: State of Wyoming Streaming Video, Public Domain)

Granholm added, “We will launch carbon capture projects across the country. Governor Gordon you’ll be happy to know we’ll put them in communities that stand to gain the greatest benefits from clean sources of electricity and the high-quality jobs that they’ll create.”

DOE awarded TerraPower $80 million in initial funding last October to demonstrate the Natrium technology through its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which Barrasso has strongly supported.

Rocky Mountain Power, who is working in partnership with TerraPower, provides power to customers in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The company is a subsidiary of PacifiCorp, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Rocky Mountain Power has committed to develop the Natrium reactor at one of PacifiCorp’s existing coal-fired power plants in Wyoming. In Gillette, PacifiCorp operates the Wyodak and Jim Bridger 1, 2, 3, and 4 units. It also operates the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock, the Naughton Power Plant near Kemmerer, and the Jim Bridger plant near Point of Rocks.

The competition among communities for the Natrium reactor will likely be big.

Rocky Mountain Power has committed to complete its due diligence on the project and select a site by the end of 2021 and the jobs from both construction of the Natrium reactor and its ongoing operations could be huge.

“We will need thousands of highly-skilled workers to help us build the Natrium plant and hundreds more workers to operate it for decades to come,” TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque said. “That’s a big part of why we’re here in Wyoming. Wyoming knows how to build and operate energy facilities.”

As the largest net-exporting energy state in the U.S., Wyoming definitely knows how to work with energy.

“It is expected that the jobs for operating the plant will be comparable in number, salary, and benefits to jobs in the existing coal-fired plant,” Gordon said.

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Rocky Mountain Power’s decision to locate the Natrium reactor at an existing coal-fired power plant site could also be a boon to communities who are losing good jobs as coal is phased out in favor of cheaper energy across Wyoming and the U.S.

“What has me most excited, frankly, about this reactor, is that TerraPower made a decision to use a retired coal plant site, which is using the existing energy infrastructure to bring new economic life into the surrounding community,” Granholm said. “And I think that’s how we can lead fossil fuel communities who have literally powered our country and our economy for decades, we can lead them into the clean energy future. They have powered our past. We want them to power our future as well.”

The tech

Natrium is a 345-megawatt (MWe) sodium fast reactor. The use of molten salt makes Natrium’s design safer than traditional nuclear reactors and its designers say it is four times more fuel efficient than light water reactors.

Natrium has coupled its reactor with storage technology that will allow for the storage of molten salt. Its ability to store energy allows it to produce 500 MWe of output for over five and a half hours and uniquely positions it to provide base-load electricity and to complement the increased use of renewables on the grid.

Rocky Mountain Power president and CEO Gary Hoogeveen talked about Natrium in the context of the power industry’s drive to decarbonize.

“We need to continue to provide 24/7 reliability,” Hoogeveen said. “But without a project like Natrium by TerraPower, I don’t know how we would do that. We are currently building a lot of wind and solar, and in fact we are proud and privileged to do that on behalf of our customers, because it provides zero fuel cost electricity, and it is very affordable and very cheap right now and we will continue to build it.”

Hoogeveen added, “But we know, as a utility in the utility industry, like everyone else does in the utility industry, that you can’t do 100% renewable and battery power and serve 24/7, not with the current technology that we have. That’s what’s so exciting about today, because this technology can allow us to provide carbon-free electricity 24/7/365.”

What’s next

Yesterday’s announcement does not mean Natrium is a go in Wyoming.

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PacifiCorp has committed only to completing due diligence on siting, development, and project economics. It plans to announce the site it would build the Natrium reactor upon before end of year.

Should the project’s economics make it feasible, Rocky Mountain Power would include the Natrium reactor in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power use the IRP for long range planning and complete an update every two years. The next update is do this coming fall. The IRP is submitted to the public service commission (PSC) in states in which Rocky Mountain Power operates. Rocky Mountain Power (and PacifiCorp) must receive approval from PSC regulators in each state to make investments that will affect the cost of electricity charged to its ratepayers.

Granholm noted that the Natrium project could be good for Wyoming rate payers and applauded both Gordon and the Legislature for their foresight.

“I have a feeling that Wyoming won’t be the only state angling for one of these nuclear reactors once we see it in action,” she said.