Multi-billion dollar Natrium nuclear project inches forward

An image shows the TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Natrium technology, which features a sodium fast reactor combined with a molten salt energy storage system. (TerraPower)

By Nick Reynolds, WyoFile

A progress report to members of the Joint Committee on Minerals, Business & Economic Development in Laramie Thursday offered mostly good news to proponents of building a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor in Wyoming. Even with the backing of the Biden White House and the U.S. Department of Energy, however, the nascent plan still faces numerous administrative and legislative hurdles.

Officials with Rocky Mountain Power — who will facilitate construction of the project alongside billionaire tech entrepreneur Bill Gates’ company, TerraPower — told lawmakers they will select a  project site by the end of 2021. They are eying four potential choices across Wyoming: Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Naughton in Kemmerer, Dave Johnston near Glenrock or WyoDak near Gillette.

Appropriators in the U.S. Senate recently approved billions of dollars in aid to bolster nuclear energy production.

In addition, Wyoming Mining Association Director Travis Deti informed lawmakers the DOE filed a request for information regarding the establishment of a domestic uranium reserve program in an effort to reinvigorate domestic nuclear fuel supply chain capabilities.

“We’re hopeful we can start producing [uranium] again in this state,” Deti said.

Capitalizing on nuclear

Numerous legislative fixes would be required to keep Wyoming statutes up to date with changing technologies and accommodate such a facility.

Concerns from lawmakers about Wyoming’s ability to capitalize on the project, however, are likely overblown, officials with the Idaho National Laboratory in Arco told the committee. Easy access to natural gas and hydrogen along with pre-existing rail infrastructure make Wyoming a prime site for the facility as well as a potential location for manufacturing its components, according to the INL’s Dr. Richard Boardman.

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Boardman added that while the University of Wyoming lacks a nuclear energy program, its School of Energy Resources could facilitate the training necessary to develop workforces for constructing and operating the facility.

“Probably 90% of what we have spoken of that’s necessary for this project is already located at the university in what is currently the Department of Chemical Engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics,” Boardman said.

Skeptics

Some remained skeptical of the project’s broader implications.

State Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) — a staunch advocate for coal — expressed concerns about a Wyoming-based utility courting federal funding to pioneer an alternative form of energy.

“I just don’t understand from a market perspective how that’s even appropriate,” Gray said.

This came despite project boosters billing the facility as a way to fill the void left behind by coal-fired facilities that are no longer competitive against cheaper energy sources like oil and gas.

Others have raised environmental concerns outside of the meeting. (Activist pressure helped defeat a plan in the Wyoming Legislature to pursue a temporary nuclear waste storage facility in the 2019 interim session.)

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Natrium officials previously told WyoFile the waste produced by the facility would be stored on site.

Still up for debate, however, is how to tax the new style of reactor.

Some cited low taxes for energy produced by renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), however, was reluctant to give nuclear a tax-free pass, urging lawmakers not to set an arbitrary tax rate that would hinder Wyoming’s future earning potential.

“The last thing we need to do is find ways to reduce our revenue right now,” Rothfuss said.

The committee ultimately defeated a motion to reduce the state’s production taxes on nuclear energy to zero.

 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.