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A look ahead at advanced nuclear in 2022

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Kemmerer (copy)

PacifiCorp's Naughton Power Plant is seen in February 2019. Bill Gates' TerraPower has selected the site for its first nuclear reactor.

On June 2, TerraPower announced that it would build a demonstration nuclear reactor, known as Natrium, at a retiring Wyoming coal plant.

The Bill Gates-fronted nuclear developer had joined forces with utility Rocky Mountain Power, after receiving an $80 million Department of Energy grant, to build one of the country’s first small modular reactors.

“Wyoming has been a leader in energy for over a century,” Gates said during a news conference at the time, “and we hope our investment in Natrium will allow Wyoming to stay in the lead for many decades to come.”

All four candidate communities — Rock Springs, Kemmerer, Glenrock and Gillette — soon made it clear to TerraPower that they would welcome the nuclear plant. But in November, Kemmerer, home to 2,750 people and the 448-megawatt Naughton Coal Plant, won.

Now that a site has been announced, things will move quickly — at least as nuclear projects go.

“As the clock runs out on 2021, it reinforces the urgency for focus as TerraPower seeks to meet the aggressive timeline to complete construction and begin operations at the first Natrium plant,” Amber Schwab, a TerraPower spokesperson, wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “The (Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program) schedule, mandated by Congress, requires the plant to be complete by 2028.”

The Department of Energy has promised to fund half the project, up to $1.6 billion, as long as Natrium is operational on time. It’s an ambitious goal. Construction of earlier nuclear reactors has often stretched for a decade or more, straining developers’ already tight budgets; Congress hopes that the time pressure, on top of the plants’ smaller size, will bring down costs in the long run.

Compared with the fanfare that surrounded this year’s two big announcements, 2022 is looking like a quieter year for Natrium.

Before TerraPower can start building the reactor, it needs to have the first of two major permits approved. The submission of both applications is built into the seven-year timeline: a construction license in August 2023 and an operating license in March 2026.

Meeting the congressional deadline means packing 2022 with preliminary meetings and reports on in-the-weeds subjects like radionuclide transport methodology, design basis accident transient methodology and core flow blockage detection and prevention, along with environmental coordination with various government agencies.

“The time is right for the next generation of nuclear energy,” Schwab wrote. “Just as 2021 was pivotal in the TerraPower story, the coming year will represent another significant step in the company’s efforts to move from research, development and design into the concrete future of advanced nuclear power.”

Uranium producers, frustrated by international fuel prices that remained too low for U.S. mines to compete, have also been galvanized by global nuclear growth and the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

Texas-based Uranium Energy Corp, which recently purchased several Wyoming assets from Russian-owned Uranium One, hopes market prices will rise high enough this year for idling U.S. mines to begin ramping up production for the first time in years — the first step toward establishing a domestic supply chain for the more highly enriched uranium used in next-generation reactors like Natrium.

And it’ll be a busy year in Kemmerer, too. Construction of the project is expected to last several years and employ roughly 2,000 temporary workers — nearly doubling the town’s population.

“A small town like ours, which right now is about 2,750 or so in population, you don’t have the accommodations for a few thousand extra people,” Kemmerer mayor Bill Thek told the Star-Tribune in November.

Some of those workers will end up driving in from out of town, Thek said. But with more than two years before construction is set to begin, the town has time to update a few existing apartment buildings and expand local services, like police presence, before the influx arrives.

“I feel fortunate there,” Thek said. “It’s not going to be overnight that this is going to happen.”


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