The dubious track record of ‘new’ nuclear technology

By Kerry Drake, WyoFile

A friend of mine says he has no problem with nuclear energy or “experimental” projects, but not when they are combined and linked to Wyoming.

I think it’s a sentiment many share. Residents know the state must find a replacement for fossil fuels to drive its economy, but offering the Equality State as the proving ground for new, “advanced” nuclear technology feels too risky.

Count me as a member of this group. That puts me at odds with advocates for the Natrium nuclear demonstration project — like state executives or Kemmerer officials anxious to save their town, which was chosen for the $4 billion facility. They say Wyoming needs to roll the dice and rake in the riches.

Such unfettered optimism is alluring. It’s easy to admire the vision of TerraPower founder Bill Gates: nuclear power plants replacing coal-fired facilities across the country and thus cutting planet-destroying carbon emissions. I understand why many want to jump on this bandwagon.

I don’t generally view myself as a “not-in-my-backyard” kind of guy. In this instance, though, I think it’s imperative to scrutinize the project at every stage.

There are myriad reasons for this cautious approach. Yet federal and state officials want to remove regulatory barriers and go full-speed ahead.

Safety heads the list. Yes, nuclear energy has been part of the nation’s electrical generation mix for decades, but Gates claims the Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor, with molten salt-based energy storage, will produce less nuclear waste and be safer than a conventional light-water reactor.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, however, issued a report in March that sharply questions such assertions.

Sodium-cooled fast reactors, the report said, would likely be less “uranium-efficient” and not reduce the amount of waste that requires long-term isolation in a geologic repository. Sodium coolant can burn when exposed to air or water, and the organization said a demonstration project like the one proposed in Kemmerer “could experience uncontrollable power increases that result in rapid core melting.”

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Gulp. If that scary scenario doesn’t warrant pumping the brakes in Wyoming, I don’t know what would.

But there are other important safety factors that also deserve attention. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under pressure to find carbon-free solutions to combat climate change, has been pushing to streamline safety and environmental reviews for advanced nuclear projects. The Wyoming Outdoor Council noted that the NRC is considering using a “generic” environmental impact statement, instead of detailed reviews of specific sites.

“We shouldn’t be cutting corners on health and safety to rush through an untested technology, and Wyoming’s harsh climate and seismic activity underscore the need for site-specific reviews,” WOC warned.

Wyoming officials, led by Gov. Mark Gordon, have enthusiastically endorsed the Natrium project, treating it purely as an economic windfall. But not only is there no guarantee such a boom will happen. In fact, other states’ and nations’ experiences strongly suggest it won’t.

In an open letter to Gates, Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer who has spent 50 years working in the industry, called out the billionaire for leveraging his fortune “to siphon precious taxpayer funds supporting your latest atomic contrivance in Wyoming.”

TerraPower has a huge financial stake in the Kemmerer project, committing a total of $2 billion. It’s money that the corporation won’t recoup unless Natrium proves to be a reliable, safe alternative to fossil fuels that can be efficiently replicated at other facilities.

But without the backing of the federal government, Gates likely wouldn’t be in the game. That’s because nuclear reactors typically run way over budget, if they’re completed at all. The 345-megawatt Natrium project was originally announced as a $1 billion facility, but the price tag has quickly quadrupled.

President Joe Biden’s administration, anxious to meet international goals to halt climate change, is all-in on Natrium. The Department of Energy is matching Gates dollar-for-dollar to develop “new” sodium-cooled reactor technology that has failed since it was first introduced on the U.S. submarine Seawolf in the 1950s.

Other attempts include the privately financed Fermi 1 site near Lake Erie, which was shut down in 1966 after a partial meltdown; and at Clinch River in Tennessee. The latter, a publicly funded project, was plagued by delays and huge cost overruns, and Congress finally shut it down in the mid-1980s due to serious safety concerns.

In his letter to Gates, Gunderson detailed the epic failure of the Monju sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor in Japan. It took a decade to build and was shut down in 1995 after four months due to a sodium leak and fire. Monju wasn’t reopened until 2010, and permanently halted a year later after a refueling accident.

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The cost to the Japanese government? More than $11 billion. Meanwhile, after decades of expensive research, France’s nuclear agency has shelved plans to build a prototype sodium-cooled nuclear reactor.

“So now is the time to stop the Natrium marketing hype and free up those precious public funds to pursue low-cost and dependable renewable energy during the time frame necessary to help prevent catastrophic climate crises!” Gunderson concluded.

Many scientists agree. “The recent attention on nuclear energy is fully driven by the declining industry’s desperation for capital and its related lobby depicting it as a solution for climate change,” Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace told Deutsche Welle, a German news organization. “… It does so too late and at a far too high cost.”

The Kemmerer project at the Naughton coal-fired plant, owned by Rocky Mountain Power, has a timeline that will be difficult to meet unless every phase goes off without a hitch — something that’s nearly unheard of in the nuclear industry. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves permits, construction would begin in 2024, with the reactor in service only four years later.

PacifiCorp, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, estimates that it will take about 2,000 workers to build the plant in Kemmerer and 250 to operate it. It presents the ultimate lottery ticket for a small mining community whose future looked mighty bleak when PacifiCorp announced plans to close the coal-fired plant.

So, here’s today’s $4 billion question: What happens to Kemmerer and Wyoming if TerraPower’s critics are right and the plug is ultimately pulled for safety or economic reasons?

Wyoming will survive, but not without cost. It will have lost all the time and energy the state could have devoted to finding long-term solutions to diversify its economy and stop relying on fossil fuels.

And Kemmerer? The town has experienced so much uncertainty in recent years, I hope it would use any reprieve from the nuclear industry to its advantage. State government must step in and require TerraPower to pay enough for mitigation to ensure that Kemmerer won’t be left in the lurch.

If Gates is going to ride into town promising to be its economic savior, Wyoming needs to hold him to it. Don’t make us sic the posse on you, pardner.

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