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New advanced nuclear guide spotlights Wyoming Natrium plant
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New advanced nuclear guide spotlights Wyoming Natrium 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.

In the four months since TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power announced plans to build an advanced nuclear facility at a retiring Wyoming coal plant, the state has emerged as an early industry leader.

The proposed modular reactor features prominently in a report published Thursday by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, an advanced nuclear advocacy group. Intended as an introduction and guide to next-generation nuclear for state policymakers, the report outlines the technology’s economic and environmental potential and summarizes four case studies.

It contrasts Wyoming’s plans with a proposal for four 80-megawatt modular reactors in Washington state; growing momentum for advanced nuclear development in import-reliant Puerto Rico; and a coordinated effort by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a group of small Western utilities, to build six 77-megawatt modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2030.

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.

While Wyoming’s is the only single reactor, its modular design means new capacity can be added on in the future.

Each project meets a distinct community need, said Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

“I’d say in Wyoming, it’s more of an economic development theme,” Greenwald said. “You might say, in Washington state, it’s more of a climate theme. In Puerto Rico, it’s more of a resilience theme — they’ve really been suffering from hurricanes and other natural disasters. And then I think in UAMPS, it’s a little bit of everything.”

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Another theme, this one shared by all four states, is the desire to be first. Early adopters of successful technologies are often rewarded with business advantages, local supply chain development and job growth, Greenwald said.

If the three existing proposals are completed on time, rapid commercial expansion could come as soon as the late 2020s or early 2030s, with the fastest-moving states and utilities reaping the most significant benefits, the report found.

Advanced nuclear is one of a handful of power sources with bipartisan appeal. The fledgling technology promises electricity that’s reliable, carbon-free and able to supplement the variability of wind and solar — so long as it can overcome supply-chain barriers like high construction costs and a lack of domestic fuel sources.

“This is one of the few ways that our political system seems to be able to come to an agreement,” Greenwald said. “We don’t agree on why we’re doing something, but we agree on the thing. So this might be one of those examples where, for different reasons, people come around to the same solution.”

Unlike conventional nuclear plants, which nearly always operate at full capacity, the three proposed projects are intended to be more flexible. Each one does it differently.

Wyoming’s reactor would store excess energy using molten salt, enabling it to ramp up from 345 to 500 megawatts for 5.5 hours. Idaho’s multiple units would allow operators to adjust production to meet changing demand. Washington’s plant is designed to reroute surplus electricity toward alternative uses, such as hydrogen production.

But there’s another reason why the Wyoming project stands out, said Victor Ibarra, Jr., an analyst for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and a co-author of the report. If the developers can successfully build an advanced nuclear reactor on the site of a retiring coal facility, their approach will likely serve as a model for other states.

“It’s really exciting to see what will be a former coal plant be repurposed to an advanced nuclear energy facility,” Ibarra said. “If that can be done well, with all the forecasted coal retirements in the future, that would signal a very interesting opportunity for the advanced reactor community to potentially fill that gap from energy that’s being lost, and also providing a lot of economic opportunities to local communities.”

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