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Wyoming leads nation on coal-to-nuclear as interest climbs

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Kemmerer

Steam rises from Naughton Power Plant outside Kemmerer earlier this month. While Naughton was chosen as the site of a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor, national interest in repurposing other plants for reactors is growing.

Wyoming could become the first U.S. state to replace one of its coal-fired power plants with an advanced nuclear reactor.

Long the country’s leading coal producer, now searching for ways to diversify its energy sector as electricity producers move from coal-fired power plants to lower-emissions sources, Wyoming last year became one of the first states chosen to host a next-generation nuclear facility. Its developer, TerraPower, plans to build it by 2028 on the site of Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton Power Plant.

The project could become the first to repurpose the infrastructure from a coal plant. But if small modular reactors take hold in the U.S., as many in Wyoming hope they will, the Naughton conversion is unlikely to be the last.

Building nuclear reactors — particularly advanced ones — at coal plants offers “a way to replace the retiring coal generation capacity while utilizing what would otherwise be stranded assets … and providing economic opportunity to site owners and surrounding communities,” according to a Department of Energy report published last week.

The agency found that hundreds of operating or recently retired coal plants across the country meet the basic criteria for siting a nuclear reactor, such as low population density and access to a cooling source. Ten of Wyoming’s coal plants qualify.

The Kemmerer project is “a strong first step, as we understand the jobs at the new nuclear plant will likely be available to current employees at the current plant,” Michael Pearlman, Gov. Mark Gordon’s communications director, said via email. “However, if all we get is a nuclear plant, we have failed. Wyoming is working to develop a nuclear industry, including uranium mining and production for a new generation of nuclear plants.”

Nuclear isn’t the only option: Coal plants could, for example, be converted to burn natural gas or be outfitted with carbon capture (if the economics pan out). But nuclear is an increasingly popular choice. Especially for coal plants.

“The Nature Conservancy is excited about reuse of infrastructure. We think that’s a really, really good policy,” said Justin Loyka, the environmental group’s Wyoming energy programs manager.

In the short term, he said, nuclear power can be paired with other low-emissions but intermittent electricity sources, like wind and solar, Loyka said. “It remains to be seen if nuclear is going to fill that role long-term, because these other technologies are developing very quickly. And we’re not sure what will be dominant in a long time, which is an interesting situation, because nuclear moves rather slowly.”

With advanced nuclear enjoying rare bipartisan appeal, though, Congress is using both money and policy change to accelerate the development of projects like TerraPower’s.

Meanwhile, coal plants appeal to nuclear developers in part because the ability to repurpose that existing infrastructure reduces up-front costs, a TerraPower spokesperson said in an emailed statement. And Wyoming’s skilled workforce and openness to new energy projects make the state particularly attractive.

Which is exactly what state leaders hope will continue to give Wyoming an edge over all the other states vying for advanced nuclear reactors like TerraPower’s.

“Wyoming is the perfect place to demonstrate how this industry, after years of being overlooked, can be revived in a location where community and public acceptance are strong due to our long history as energy providers,” Glen Murrell, executive director of the Wyoming Energy Authority, said in an emailed statement.

The expansion of nuclear has stagnated in the U.S. in recent decades, largely as a result of high costs and lengthy construction delays. An increase in the share of electricity generated by nuclear plants would likely bring more demand for fuel — a prospect welcomed by Wyoming’s uranium industry.

But the state’s coal industry — and the many jobs and services it continues to support — remains front of mind for Wyoming’s leaders.

“This isn’t an either/or scenario,” Murrell said. “Wyoming supports a ‘coal AND nuclear’ future.”

Even as state leaders see nuclear as one option for retiring coal plants, they continue to push for advancements in carbon capture technology and the installation of carbon capture, in the hopes it will extend coal plants’ lives.

“Both coal and nuclear are important to Wyoming,” Pearlman said. “With Wyoming being the leader in both coal and uranium production, there is no reason that both fuel sources cannot continue to be developed in response to global energy demands.”

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