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TerraPower picks Kemmerer for nuclear plant

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TerraPower has chosen the Naughton power plant in Kemmerer as the site of its first Natrium nuclear reactor, the company said Tuesday.

The decision comes nearly six months after the nuclear developer and regional utility Rocky Mountain Power announced plans to build the demonstration reactor at one of four retiring Wyoming coal plants. Also in contention were Dave Johnston in Glenrock, Wyodak in Gillette and Jim Bridger in Rock Springs.

All four plants were already slated to retire before 2040, starting with both Naughton units in 2025 and all four Dave Johnston units in 2027 — removing thousands of megawatts of consistent power generation from the regional electric grid, and eliminating hundreds of Wyoming jobs.

With a maximum generation capacity of 345 megawatts, but equipped with enough storage to run at 500 megawatts for 5.5 hours, TerraPower’s small modular reactor would provide a similar output to the Naughton and Wyodak plants, half of Dave Johnston’s capacity and about one-fifth of Jim Bridger’s. Designed to accommodate the needs of a changing electric grid, the Natrium reactor can stand alone, be built jointly with other units or have additional capacity added later.

The company has told state regulators and prospective hosts that it plans to help local power plant workers transition to many of the 250 estimated permanent positions at the Natrium plant — though it has warned that some of those roles, along with a portion of the roughly 2,000 construction jobs, may require highly specialized nuclear workers from outside the state.

“This project is an exciting opportunity to explore what could be the next generation of clean, reliable, affordable energy production while providing a path to transition for Wyoming’s energy economy, communities and employees,” Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, said in a statement.

Natrium will be an entirely new facility; it won’t use the coal boilers inside the Naughton plant. But because it will repurpose existing transmission infrastructure, the coal plant will have to shut down before Natrium can start up. The plant’s 2025 retirement date, the earliest of the four, made it an appealing choice, TerraPower said Tuesday. Other factors, including community interest, infrastructure availability and compliance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing requirements, cemented the decision.

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.

Still, TerraPower’s “preferred siting is subject to the finalization of definitive agreements on the site and applicable permitting,” the company said.

In June, TerraPower founder Bill Gates announced the company would partner with Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy on a nuclear reactor in Wyoming. Backers see it as a source of new jobs in Wyoming and a bridge to a greener energy future. Critics have raised questions about safety and the feasibility of the project.

Work on the project is expected to progress quickly. To qualify for matching funds from the Department of Energy, which were confirmed by the passage of the infrastructure bill on Monday, Natrium must be operational by 2028. In order to meet that ambitious deadline, TerraPower plans to begin construction in Kemmerer by mid-2024. It will apply for a construction permit in 2023.

“Just yesterday, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and today [the Department of Energy] is already putting it to work with more than $1.5 billion heading to Wyoming,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement Tuesday. “The energy communities that have powered us for generations have real opportunities to power our clean energy future through projects just like this one, that provide good-paying jobs and usher in the next wave of nuclear technologies.”

Should TerraPower succeed, more Natrium reactors are likely to follow. And while the Kemmerer plant comes with a $4 billion price tag, TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque emphasized during a call with reporters that the first project — which includes the costs of designing the plant, licensing that design and sourcing all of its components — will be the most expensive.

“We won’t make money on the first plant,” he said. “We’ll make money when we sell many more of these plants.”

Levesque expects those substantial supply chain investments to have positive impacts on vendors throughout Wyoming, especially if new reactors continue to be built. If they are, he said, the other three coal plants are first in line. The company has not named a runner-up site for the first plant.

“In the communities that aren’t chosen for the first one, we think they could totally be like the second or the third,” Levesque told the Star-Tribune last week. “Rocky Mountain Power needs more.”

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