TerraPower selects Kemmerer for advanced nuclear power plant

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 Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

Construction is expected to begin in 2024 with an in-service target of 2028.

TerraPower has selected the Naughton power plant near Kemmerer for its proposed 345-megawatt Natrium nuclear power demonstration plant, the first of many that the company and its partners plan to build in Wyoming and across the world.

Also in the running for site selection were the Jim Bridger power plant near Rock Springs, the Dave Johnston power plant near Glenrock and the WyoDak power plant near Gillette.

While all four locations were well-suited for the project, Kemmerer and the Naughton power plant won out for its skilled labor force and, primarily, because project partner Rocky Mountain Power plans to retire coal-burning units at the plant before the target in-service date of 2028, TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said Tuesday.

“The ultimate decision came down to various technical criteria,” Levesque said during a press conference. “We collected data and evaluated the information against our regulatory and project requirements. Some of the things we considered were the retirement date of the existing plant in those cities and the alignment with our project schedule.”

Developers also considered the availability of water for cooling, electrical transmission and distribution connections, as well as land availability, Levesque said. The nuclear power plant will not be housed inside the 58-year-old Naughton structure, TerraPower officials indicated, but in a newly built facility near the existing coal-fired power plant.

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“The extensive examination ultimately led to the selection of Kemmerer, and that decision aligns with our strategy to locate reactors near retiring coal plants,” Levesque said.

“On behalf of Kemmerer and surrounding communities, we are pleased and excited to host the Natrium demonstration project,” Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek said in a prepared statement.

TerraPower is backed by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The company’s Natrium project is intended to provide a quickly deployable strategy to upgrade the nation’s electrical grid from fossil fuels to low-emissions clean energy.

Kemmerer area residents listen during a January 2020 Wyoming Public Service Commission hearing. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

TerraPower is partnered with Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy, which is expected to contribute about $2 billion for the $4 billion project, Levesque said.

Developers expect the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve major permits for the project within three years, which will be key to achieving an in-service date of 2028. That deadline is a condition of the DOE’s support.

Levesque said TerraPower’s confidence in the timeline is rooted in the “American Nuclear Infrastructure Act” championed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming). The law directs the NRC to speed up approvals for new nuclear power.

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“So we expect construction to start in 2024,” Levesque said.

The Natrium design uses liquid sodium as its coolant rather than water, like most nuclear reactors. (The name Natrium comes from the Latin word for sodium.) The solid sodium melts into a liquid form when it gets hot enough. That molten metal is what’s inside the core cooling the reactor vessel and — via a molten salt loop — ultimately allowing a steam turbine to generate electricity.

Some question the viability and safety of the technology, and doubt the feasibility of the timeline that’s been set out.

The project is expected to draw about 2,000 construction workers and support about 250 full-time jobs when in operation, according to TerraPower.

TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power are working with the governor’s office, University of Wyoming, community colleges and Kemmerer officials to begin to plan to meet workforce needs, as well as preparations to help Kemmerer handle the influx of workers and activity, Levesque said.

 

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