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Lawmakers debate taxes, definitions in discussion of proposed nuclear plant
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Lawmakers debate taxes, definitions in discussion of proposed nuclear plant

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Nuclear plant

Gov. Mark Gordon has announced plans to team with Bill Gates' nuclear energy company TerraPower and utility Rocky Mountain Power to bring a nuclear power plant, seen here, to Wyoming. The small modular reactor will make use of a molten salt energy storage system.

The small modular nuclear reactor coming to Wyoming has hit a regulatory snag: Technically, under state law, it isn’t one.

Last March, the passage of House Bill 74 gave the Environmental Quality Council authority to permit small modular nuclear reactors that would replace coal or natural gas plants — like the demonstration project proposed for construction at one of Wyoming’s retiring coal plants by electric utility Rocky Mountain Power and nuclear developer TerraPower.

But the bill defines a small modular nuclear reactor as having a capacity of no more than 300 megawatts. TerraPower’s plant would have a capacity of 345 megawatts.

Representatives from Rocky Mountain Power and TerraPower on Thursday asked the Wyoming Legislature’s joint Minerals, Business & Economic Development Committee to consider revising House Bill 74 to include their proposal and future projects like it.

“There are certain areas that I think could leave it more open ended, so that the next time a nuclear power plant is looking to be sited in Wyoming, you don’t have to change the code every time,” said Jon Cox, vice president of government affairs for Rocky Mountain Power.

Wyoming announced a new modular nuclear power facility in conjunction with TerraPower, a company co-founded by Bill Gates, Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy. The facility will use Natrium molten sodium technology and will be the first of its kind. It's expected to replace one of Wyoming's coal-fired plants and may help the state reach Gov. Mark Gordon's goal to be carbon neutral or carbon-negative while still using fossil fuels.

The committee voted to have a bill drafted that would allow the proposed nuclear plant to qualify for the modified permitting process, and clarify other, smaller, concerns raised during the meeting, including whether permitting can be done concurrently by the state and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed things up.

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If House Bill 74 remains unchanged, the project can still be permitted, though it may face a longer regulatory process that its developers worry could jeopardize the tight seven-year timeline for construction set by the Department of Energy.

Half of the funding for the project comes from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program — and could be retracted if the plant isn’t finished on time. But if it does proceed according to schedule, it’s likely to receive ongoing federal support.

“The infrastructure package that passed the Senate earlier this week contains four years of funding for the advanced reactor demonstration program,” Jeff Navin, director of external affairs for TerraPower, told the committee. “And when you couple that with the funds that we received for this fiscal year, if that bill is eventually signed into law, it would ensure that the first five years of the project will be fully funded through the cost share.”

While TerraPower would still need to source funding for the remaining two years of development, having that confirmed financial support for the first five years would reduce monetary risk and help to prevent delays related to funding issues, Navin said.

During the committee meeting, Cox also asked whether the $5 per megawatt tax on nuclear generation could be waived or lowered. The tax does not apply to demonstration projects like the proposed reactor, but Cox said it could make future nuclear development in Wyoming uneconomical.

Though the project’s developers have said in the past that they hope to eventually build modular reactors at all four sites, the tax “would be an impediment to growth, or to building a second or third reactor down the road,” Cox said.

Many of the legislators, who want to see numerous modular nuclear reactors built in Wyoming in the wake of the TerraPower plant, reacted to Cox’s claim with a mix of dismay and frustration. Sen. Jim Anderson proposed eliminating taxation of nuclear energy. The motion failed.

“I think this hearkens more towards the idea that we probably need a comprehensive overhaul of taxation of electrical power,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss said in response to Anderson’s motion. “And this is an ad hoc approach to it, where we just pick a new type of power and come up with arbitrary reasons where we should tax a certain way, which is probably not good policy and definitely doesn’t make industry think Wyoming is cool when they’re trying to figure out where to go build a power plant.”


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