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Wyoming towns eager to host next-generation nuclear reactor
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Wyoming towns eager to host next-generation nuclear reactor

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Nuclear power

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks in front of U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., during the press conference announcing efforts to nuclear power plant at a retiring coal plant on Wednesday at the Wyoming Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. The location of the project is set to be announced later this year. 

Four Wyoming communities are in the running to play host to a new nuclear reactor coming to the state.

The next-generation plant will replace an existing coal-fired plant, meaning there are four sites in consideration — the Dave Johnston plant in Glenrock, the Wyodak plant outside Gillette, the Naughton plant in Kemmerer and the Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs.

Following an announcement Wednesday from Gov. Mark Gordon, Rocky Mountain Power and TerraPower founder Bill Gates that the state had been chosen for the pilot project, leaders in Glenrock, Gillette, Kemmerer and Rock Springs now await a final decision on the reactor’s location.

The site chosen for the Natrium Reactor project will be announced by the end of the year, Rocky Mountain Power President and CEO Gary Hoogeveen said Wednesday. The reactor is planned to start generating energy by mid-2028.

Local leaders in communities near the proposed sites were all hopeful about the prospect of the reactor coming into their areas, but they said wherever it lands in Wyoming should benefit the state as a whole.

The mayors of Kemmerer, Glenrock, Gillette and Rock Springs said the nuclear plant would be a welcome way to keep local energy jobs alive and bring even more in, stimulating their communities’ economies. None worried that there could be any negative effects.

Of the potential sites, the power plant closest to retirement is the Naughton Power Plant outside of Kemmerer, whose two coal units are set to retire in 2025. Those units combine for a capacity of 448 megawatts of generated energy.

After that, all four units of the Dave Johnston Power Plant near Glenrock are scheduled for retirement in 2027 based on the most recent PacifiCorp report. The plant, whose first unit began operating in 1959, now has a capacity of 922 megawatts.

“I’m glad to see they’re looking to do something to keep our economy going,” Glenrock Mayor Bruce Roumell said, “instead of just shutting the plants down and letting them mothball.”

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.

Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek said he doesn’t think there will be much room for cities and towns to make their case to be chosen, based on his conversations with the company.

“I’m real excited about something like this,” Thek said Wednesday. “I just wish there was a way we could lobby to be the municipality to get this.”

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One unit at the Naughton plant was converted to natural gas in 2020. The estimated 2025 retirement date for the two remaining coal units is based on PacifiCorp’s most recent integrated resource plan from 2019.

An updated plan is set to come out in September of this year, which could change those projected retirement dates.

In Gillette, near the Wyodak coal mine, Mayor Louise Carter-King said she hopes Rocky Mountain Power will visit each of the communities being considered before making their decision.

“We have the skilled workforce, we have the infrastructure, we have everything, we have uranium, we have a great community ready to go,” Carter-King said. “Gillette would be the absolute perfect place for this project.”

Between booms and busts in the methane, coal, and oil and gas industries, Carter-King said Gillette has plenty of experience adapting its workforce to new energy sources. Current estimates project Wyodak won’t reach the end of its life until 2039. But that doesn’t mean it can’t (or won’t) be retired before then, Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson David Eskelsen said Wednesday.

Carter-King and Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo said local community colleges — Gillette and Western Wyoming — would be able to retrain coal workers to make the transition to nuclear.

Kaumo said the reactor coming to Rock Springs would prevent the loss of jobs when the Jim Bridger Power Plant eventually shutters. One unit of the plant is currently set for retirement in 2023, a second in 2028 and the last two in 2037, but that is still subject to change. He’s optimistic that nuclear energy could be a cleaner, more efficient alternative to coal, and more dependable than renewables such as wind and solar.

“We know diversification is one of our key tasks here,” Kaumo said. “A city or town can easily turn into a ghost town just with the loss of one industry. We’ve been lobbying Rocky Mountain Power for several months, trying to find ways to prolong the life of the power plant, or sell it to maintain those high-paying jobs.”

Roumell said the reactor coming to the Dave Johnston plant would give the large energy workforce in Glenrock a good reason to stay, keeping their money and tax revenue in Converse County.

The plant is also near Casper, the state’s second-largest city. Casper City Manager Carter Napier said Wednesday he expects that if the Glenrock site is chosen, the project will also preserve and add construction and energy jobs in Casper, Natrona County and Douglas, where many current coal workers already live. Napier said he hopes Casper would be included in conversations about construction and other financial impacts if the Dave Johnston plant is chosen.

In Kemmerer, Thek said most people are connected to the energy industry in some way — whether or not they work at the plant or the coal mine. The town is also adding around 50 housing units in the next few years.

Thek said he met with Rocky Mountain Power, along with leaders of nearby communities including Cokeville, Diamondville, La Barge and Opal, on Wednesday morning. Kemmerer’s workforce includes people living in those towns, as well as commuters from across the border in Idaho or Utah.

The mayors of Kemmerer, Glenrock and Gillette all said the company alerted them to the news early Wednesday morning, hours before the announcement. Before that, they said, they knew nothing about the project. Kaumo said in Rock Springs, they’d heard some murmurs about the project but learned details on Wednesday.

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