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Editorial board: Nuclear plant warrants cautious optimism, but questions still remain

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PacifiCorp's Naughton Power Plant is seen in February 2019. Bill Gates' TerraPower has selected the site for its first nuclear reactor.

After months of speculation, the developers of a new type of nuclear power plant announced on Tuesday they had selected Kemmerer as the site of their first project. TerraPower’s Natrium reactor will be built at the site of the coal-fired Naughton Power Plant, which is set to retire in four years. In order to qualify for matching funds from the Department of Energy, the reactor must be operational in 2028. Under that aggressive timeline, construction would begin only a few years from now.

The small modular reactor is being developed by a company founded by Bill Gates. Advocates see the project as a beneficial in primarily two ways. In theory, it would offer a reliable source of clean energy amid a time of growing concern over climate change. At the same time, it would provide jobs in communities that are set to lose them as aging coal plants retire in favor of natural gas and renewables. TerraPower estimates the Kemmerer plant would generate about 250 permanent jobs.

For a community such as Kemmerer, it’s easy to see the allure of the $4 billion project. The small, southwest Wyoming town is isolated from any larger communities. It’s long relied on a coal mine and adjacent coal-fired power plant as the community’s economic driver. As coal production waned, people openly wondered whether the town would survive.

But for all its promise, the Natrium plant should be viewed for the moment with cautious optimism. Questions remain, both related to the scale and timeline of the project, as well as its safety. Those questions shouldn’t result in opposition to the reactor, both for its economic potential and the possibility that it helps to address climate change. But it would be a mistake to think this one project could solve Wyoming’s economic problems, which are mainly tied to a lack of economic diversity and structural changes in the fossil fuel industry.

For one, we’re talking about a new type of reactor — one that holds promise, but still must make the perilous journey from concept to reality. Some scientists and experts have questioned whether the project’s ambitious timeline is feasible considering the history of nuclear power plant development in this country. A project of this scope is enticing for its promise, but something so large has more opportunities to fall behind and fail.

If they do get built, it remains to be seen whether Natrium reactors are economical. If they are, they could represent a boon for the state. TerraPower officials have already said they’d like to build more at other retiring power plants in Wyoming. But it remains to be seen whether the numbers will truly pencil out.

Then there are the questions of safety. Proponents say the Natrium reactor, which uses liquid sodium as its coolant, will be safer than more traditional designs. The control rods that slow the fission reaction are failsafe, they explain, because they rely on gravity. Chimneys around the reactor are designed to dissipate the residual heat that led to the Fukushima accident. But critics point to the troubled history of sodium reactors and question why TerraPower is pursuing a technology that has so far proved to be more expensive and more difficult to make safe.

At the same time, we must recognize that the status quo is fraught with its own peril for Wyoming. Our state doesn’t yet have an answer to replacing the jobs that have disappeared and will continue to disappear as the ways we power our society changes. Doing nothing means shrinking rural communities and the continued fleeing of residents, especially younger ones, to states with more lucrative opportunities.

It makes sense, then, to strike a balance somewhere between unbridled enthusiasm and simple opposition. As a state, we need to embrace new ideas and new technologies if we’re to transition to a stable future. As a country, we need to recognize that we must address climate change, but that renewables aren’t ready to take on the entirety of our energy needs. That makes nuclear power attractive, even with its potential drawbacks. And so cautious optimism should be our guiding principle as this project moves forward. Wyoming should proceed, but with eyes wide open.


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