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Nuclear power advancing in Wyoming

As we highlighted in our previous study (Powering the Mountain States: A snapshot of the region’s energy portfolio) our region is pursuing many different strategies to meet growing energy needs. Washington State for example is attempting to decrease its carbon emissions by turning to intermittent sources like wind and solar. Idaho officials are working to protect the dependable power provided by the Snake River dams and Governor Mark Gordon of Wyoming is emerging as a leading voice on promoting green energy projects.


Wyoming is also advancing an innovative nuclear project that could be the first of its kind in the United States. A nuclear design engineering firm based in Bellevue, Washington recently made a big step in providing climate-friendly baseload power for Wyoming and neighboring states.

 

Bill Gates and his energy company, Terrapower, recently broke ground in Kemmerer, Wyoming to start a nuclear power project. This project is estimated to cost $4 billion, half of which will be paid by the U.S. Department of Energy.

 

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon celebrated this news by saying:


“Today we celebrate a trifecta. This first-of-its-kind project is good for the community of Kemmerer-Diamondville, the State of Wyoming, and our nation. As Natrium moves boldly toward establishing a new domestic energy source, it offers the promise of hundreds of jobs, enhanced careers, and renewed vitality.”

 

A similar project was recently completed in Plant Vogtle, near Augusta, Georgia run by a Southern Nuclear company and owned by a multitude of power companies, including Georgia Power. Plant Vogtle’s 4 units are now the largest generator of clean energy in the U.S, estimating 30 million megawatt hours of electricity each year. U.S Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has been pushing for more reactors to be built in the U.S. and worldwide, but utility companies have grown wary because of the price tag. Terrapower is backed by billionaire Bill Gates and has raised more than $1 billion from private investors.

 

Another difference in Wyoming is Terrapower’s plant will use advanced reactors known as Natrium. This system utilizes sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFR), rather than the usual water-cooling process. Natrium can operate at higher temperatures and lower pressures which improves the safety and efficiency of the unit.


This plant is estimated to consistently generate 345 megawatts of energy to about 250,000 homes- with the capability of ramping up to 500,000 megawatts for short periods of time. Nuclear energy usually excites state officials and stakeholders because of its potential to decarbonize electricity production, produce electricity cheaply, and reduce the risk of grid disruption from weather events. 

 

Terrapower is still waiting for approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its nuclear components but hopes to get approval by 2026. In the meantime, the plant has already been approved by the NRC for its construction permit application and will work with the NRC to have an expedited process.  If all goes as planned, the units are estimated to finish by 2030 at the earliest.

 

Given the newest EPA rule package, Wyoming coal plants have been given the choice of shutting down by January of 2032, converting to natural gas co-firing by 20230 with a forced shutdown by 2039, or installing CO2 capture facilities by 2032. This takes a huge hit on Wyoming’s economy as it supplied 41% of the country’s coal in 2024 and the state labor market is dependent on coal production. Kemmerer especially has high hopes for this plant to be successful and supply jobs as their coal plant is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2036 which has supplied jobs in the town for decades.


Once operational, the new Natrium plant will support roughly 250 permanent jobs. The 2,400-resident town is already seeing the effects of the project as there are plans for a new truck stop, two large housing developments, a new grocery store, a new coffee shop, and a long-abandoned apartment building to be turned into 64 Airbnb units to house the temporary workers when the nuclear plant is being built. Terrapower has promised to retrain existing coal workers for the new plant. Their CEO Chris Levesque commented on the labor pool:

 

“That in no way is a burden for us. That, in fact is an opportunity for us. Because if you look at how you make electricity in an advanced reactor, it’s not that much different from how you make electricity in a coal plant."

 

Gates says that the company chose the location in 2021 because of its existing power grid and the local labor force already working at the Naughton power plant.

 

Warren Buffet owned, Pacificorp, has agreed to operate the new Natrium plant in Kemmerer. Pacificorp currently operates in six states including Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. They serve under the name “Rocky Mountain Power” while servicing Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. The western utility giant has reportedly been considering taking on five or more Natrium reactors by 2035 mostly in Utah and Wyoming. They plan on locating the new plants where they already are going to retire coal units.

 

Natrium plants seem to be a feasible way to appease the EPA’s guidelines for lower carbon emissions, provide solid baseload energy, and continue to employ the labor force that is on the verge of being unemployed. Terrapower breaking ground in Wyoming will be the first of many Natrium plants to be built in the Mountain States.

 

MSPC’s power study emphasized the need to find a balance between pursuing climate-friendly avenues, while still delivering affordable and reliable energy. Wind and solar look attractive, but practically they cannot deliver stable energy through weather events. Hydroelectric and nuclear power seem to be the future of dependable, baseload green energy.


A major hurdle is to transition at the correct pace from fossil fuels to other baseload sources, so that the grid is stable, and the existing labor force can find new employment. The Terrapower and PacifiCorp blueprint for targeting soon-to-be decommissioned coal plants could be a fantastic solution. This Kemmerer project is a huge step towards a pragmatic future for lower carbon emissions, driven by the free market. Neighboring states should look to Wyoming as an example going forward.

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