DOUGLAS — Will Bill Gates’ Natrium modular nuclear reactor find a home in PacifiCorps’ soon-to-be-retired Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant?
It’s a good question, and one that no one has a definitive public answer for – yet.
While Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and other major stakeholders have said they will likely announce the location of Gates’ TerraPower Natrium reactor by the end of the year, Glenrock’s DJ plant is a contender for the reactor’s location – as are other PacifiCorp properties slated for retirement: Naughton (Kemmerer), Wyodak (Gillette) and Jim Bridger, (Rock Springs).
The Dave Johnston plant, know affectionately by locals as “DJ,” is set to shutter its doors in 2027, an unhappy future for the coal plant and its 177 employees, most of who live in Glenrock, Douglas and Casper.
Gordon made the announcement that Wyoming was going to be home to a nuclear reactor and partner in the endeavor with Bill Gates and PacifiCorp, via a press conference June 2. TerraPower President/CEO Chris Levesque said TerraPower and PacifiCorp are creating the energy grid of the future, “ . . . where advanced nuclear technologies provide good-paying jobs and clean energy for years to come. The Natrium technology was designed to solve a challenge utilities face as they work to enhance grid reliability and stability while meeting decarbonization and emissions-reduction goals.”
Converse County Commission Chairman Jim Willox said Monday the news that Wyoming will host a demonstration project is wonderful – and, the chance Gates’ nuclear project will be in Glenrock is encouraging.
“The Dave Johnston Power Plant has been an essential part of Glenrock and Converse County. If we can extend its life by changing its fuel source, we can continue to provide vital power to the country and employment for our residents,” Willox said. “Safe nuclear power needs to be part of the portfolio that powers the country. (With) large reserves of uranium and the unfortunate phase out of coal-powered plants, Wyoming and Converse County are poised to continue our role as a leader in energy production.”
Willox said he and the other commissioners are looking forward to the discussion about the optimal location for the new plant.
“We believe Glenrock and Converse County are best suited,” he stated.
Choosing Glenrock and DJ for Gates’ project has sparked speculation amongst townsfolk. Those in favor of having the Natrium nuclear reactor in Glenrock say DJ has everything and it just makes sense – there’s a Gateway West Transmission line which begins in Glenrock and picks up energy along the way as it goes to Idaho, and is eventually expected to transmit power to California and Nevada as well; Converse County hosts the country’s largest current supply of uranium with mines operating in the county; and, the DJ plant sits beside the North Platte River, allowing for a constant water supply.
Glenrock Mayor Bruce Roumell did not respond to requests for comments regarding the possibility of the reactor being build just a stone’s throw outside of town.
While the project could potentially be a huge boost to not only Wyoming’s economy but Converse County’s, for now it’s a waiting game.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, said Wyoming is the best-equipped state in the nation to produce affordable and reliable energy, “and that will be enhanced with the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant. On top of strengthening our state’s energy industry, this plant will bolster our economy by creating new construction and energy production jobs.
“Nuclear power is a key element in the all-of-the-above energy approach that our state and country must follow. That approach also needs to include the continued utilization of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, which are national treasures in Wyoming and are dependable energy resources,” she said.
Not everyone was as gleeful about the announcement last week, however. Powder River Basin Resource Council Chair Marcia Westkott urged caution.
“While we support efforts to reduce carbon emissions, we have many questions surrounding Gov. Gordon’s proposal to build a small nuclear reactor in Wyoming. This technology is still experimental and unproven; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to license a design, so this announcement appears to be premature. Additionally, we have concerns about the cost to build the facility, how much water will be needed for its operation, and how the waste will be safely stored.
“On the issue of uranium mining, we need to remember that these operations will not replace the revenue lost by coal’s decline. There are no royalties and very little severance tax generated from uranium mining, so communities will not realize a windfall from this endeavor.
“Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this latest claim of a ‘silver bullet’ to save Wyoming’s economy is that it once again diverts attention away from our very real crisis in revenue, jobs and community survival. Wyoming’s elected leaders have still not come forward with a real plan to address lost jobs, declining revenues and the dissolution of coal communities. This speculative feasibility study will not do that.”
Despite those concerns, state officials and company proponents seemed undeterred and eager to move forward as quickly as possible, possibly having test plant in place by 2027 . . . the same year as DJ is slated to be decommissioned as a coal-fired power plant.
The reactor demonstration project will be a fully functioning power plant and is intended to validate the design, construction and operational features of the Natrium technology, according to a press release from PacifiCorp.
The project features a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system. The storage technology can boost the system’s output to 500 MW of power for more than five-and-a-half-hours when needed, which is equivalent to the energy required to power around 400,000 homes.
Gordon said he is thrilled “to see Wyoming selected for this demonstration pilot project. Our great state is the perfect place for this type of innovative utility facility and our experienced workforce is looking forward to the jobs this project will provide. I have always supported an all-of-the-above energy portfolio for our electric utilities. Our state continues to pave the way for the future of energy, and Wyoming should be the place where innovative energy technologies are taken to commercialization.”
The U.S. Department of Energy, through its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), awarded TerraPower $80 million in initial funding in October 2020 to demonstrate the Natrium technology. TerraPower signed the cooperative agreement with DOE in May.
Coal unit retirement dates from PacifiCorp’s 2019 plan have Jim Bridger unit one set to retire in 2023, unit 2 in 2028 and units 3-4 in 2037; Naughton units 1-2 to retire in 2025; and DJ in 2027. A revised plan is scheduled to be released this fall.