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Amended nuclear power bill advances with unresolved issues

By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

A measure to clarify state and federal regulatory roles regarding TerraPower’s planned Natrium nuclear power plant passed a Senate committee Monday with no opposing votes. But members of the public highlighted several issues that remain largely unresolved in the bill.

The Senate Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee added three amendments to House Bill 131 – Nuclear power generation and storage-amendments. Two clarified reporting and public disclosure requirements, and a third addressed technical issues brought by the Wyoming Public Service Commission.

The core of the bill repeals past statutes blocking temporary spent nuclear waste storage until the federal government funds a permanent repository. The legislation is an attempt to satisfy concerns raised by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A barrel of radioactive waste is visible through a catwalk at the Smith Ranch-Highland in-situ uranium mine in eastern Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But questions over taxation, public and environmental safety and construction impacts on communities remain. Another major unresolved concern is the fact that the only current supplier for the specialized fuel that the Natrium plant relies on is in Russia — which launched a globally denounced invasion of Ukraine.

“We are working in real time to try to figure out what additional options we might have,” TerraPower’s Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin told the committee.

Russian fuel source

The liquid-sodium cooled Natrium design relies on “high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) metallic fuel,” according to the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower.

“As of today, the only facility that can produce commercial quantities of HALEU is owned and operated by Tenex in Russia, which is problematic on a number of levels,” Navin told WyoFile via email.

TerraPower began setting aside capital in 2021 to “stand up” domestic HALEU enrichment capabilities to “create an American competitor to Tenex,” Navin said.

“We are working with Congress and the Department of Energy to expedite the development of domestic enrichment capability,” Navin said. “This investment has helped support the only facility in the United States currently licensed to produce HALEU, although they do not yet have the capability to produce HALEU at commercial levels.

TerraPower Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin in Kemmerer Jan. 19, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“This investment was made with the knowledge that we cannot rely on unstable countries like Russia for advanced reactor fuel,” Navin said. “We knew this before the invasion of Ukraine, but Russia’s recent actions make this even more clear today.”

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) was integral in creating the Advanced Nuclear Fuel Availability Program in 2020 to expedite the commercialization of American HALEU enrichment technology, Navin said.

State Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper) asked Navin whether the Natrium design could be modified to use some other type of fuel that’s not currently reliant on a Russian source.

“Probably not,” Navin answered via Zoom.

Last week, the House amended HB 131 stipulating that an exemption to the state’s $5 per megawatt hour tax on nuclear power generation be contingent on the plant sourcing at least 80% of its fuel from U.S. suppliers after 2035.

Construction impacts

House Bill 131 is too vague on the question of whether the $4 billion Natrium project will qualify for Wyoming Industrial Siting Act protections, some members of the public argued. The act provides community impact assistance payments for qualifying industrial projects via the Industrial Siting Council.

Ur-Energy reps examine drill cuttings during a 2008 delineation effort in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In addition to its economic benefits, TerraPower has acknowledged that there will also be significant strains on local services, especially in Kemmerer during the plant’s construction. The community will be host to some 2,000 workers during construction.

Powder River Basin Resource Council attorney Shannon Anderson offered an amendment to the Senate minerals committee Monday to help rectify the issue.

“What we would ask you to do with this amendment is to make sure that the Industrial Siting Act applies, full stop. It applies,” Shannon said.

The committee didn’t take up the issue.

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