Innovative nuclear reactor planned for a small town in Wyoming; The Bill Gates company behind the project

KEMMERER, Wyoming (AP) — In this sleepy Wyoming town that has relied on coal for more than a century, a man-made company that revolutionized personal computing is launching an ambitious project to fight climate change: a national restart of nuclear energy technology.

Until recently Kemmerer was little known for anything other than JC Penney’s first store and some 55 million year old fish fossils in quarries further afield.

Then, in November, a company created by Bill Gates, TerraPower, announced that it had chosen Kemmerer for an unconventional sodium-cooled nuclear reactor that will bring in workers from a local coal-fired power plant that is due to close soon. .

The demonstration project comes as many US states see the emergence of nuclear as a response to fill the void as a transition away from coal, oil and natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many residents of Kemmerer, where the population of 2,700 has changed little since the 1990s, see the TerraPower project as a much-needed economic boost as Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton Generating Station will close in 2025. The plant employs about 230 people and a mine that supplies coal exclusively to the factory – and also risks closing if it does not find another customer – nearly 300.

“Kemmerer needs something or it will become a bowl of dust,” said Ken Spears, a 69-year-old retired coal mine worker whose family has depended on the mine and power plant for generations.

A deer roams the streets of Kemmerer, Wyo., Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. The town that has relied on the coal industry since its founding faces major change when the nearby Naughton coal-fired power plant closes in 2025 and a nuclear reactor will be built in its place. (AP Photo/Natalie Behring)

Spears was among a group of men who recently gathered at a downtown bar, Grumpies, near a park with a statue of James Cash Penney and his first store. They played pool near an antique piano and signs reading “Let’s go Brandon” and “Trump 2020 No More Bull…”

Kemmerer is a quaint town of old storefronts and rolling hills, off the beaten path except for the occasional tourist crossing a slower, more scenic route to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Residents speak proudly of the coal heritage, quiet lifestyle, and easy access to open land where they can fish, hunt, and hike. A river that is frozen in winter runs through the town near a railway line that runs down the hill from the neighborhoods of older houses where families of deer roam at sunset.

Wyoming has by far the largest coal industry in the United States. Trump won the state by some of his highest margins, nearly 70%, in 2016 and 2020 on promises to shore up coal mining.

Still, worries about TerraPower’s unusual coal-replacing nuclear power plant seem rare in this town.

“It’s not a Chernobyl-type thing,” said Spears, wearing a camouflage jacket and a University of Wyoming cap with the horse and rider logo. “Kemmerer needs something.”

Steam rises from the chimneys of the Naughton Power Plant, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Kemmerer, Wyo As the power plant closes in 2025, TerraPower has announced that Kemmerer will be the site of a demonstration nuclear reactor. (AP Photo/Natalie Behring)

America’s nuclear industry has stalled, supplying 20% ​​of the country’s electricity for a decade amid the costly and time-consuming process of building massive conventional nuclear power plants.

Only one new commercial nuclear project, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar No. 2, has been commissioned in the United States in the past 25 years.

By cooling the planned Kemmerer reactor with liquid sodium, a metal that boils at a temperature well above that of water and solidifies well above ambient temperature, TerraPower says its relatively small 345-megawatt plant, capable to power approximately 345,000 homes, will be safe. and cheaper than conventional water-cooled nuclear power plants. The company’s Natrium plant will use a simpler, less expensive system of unpressurized coolant and vents that don’t rely on electricity to stop fission in an emergency.

The approach is not new. Russia has used a commercial sodium-cooled reactor at full capacity since 2016, and such designs have been tested in the United States.

TerraPower plans to make its plant useful for today’s growing renewable energy grid. A salt heat “battery” will allow the plant to increase electricity production on demand, compensating for power drops when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

“It should provide a more useful reactor, really, to run on a grid that has a lot more wind and solar power than it has in the past,” said Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower.

At its peak capacity, the plant could generate 500 megawatts, enough for 500,000 homes, he said.

The project will cost up to $4 billion, half of which comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, but costs are expected to come down as demand for carbon-free energy grows and more are built, Levesque said. .

Lights illuminate a coal mine at dusk, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Kemmerer, Wyo. With nearby Naughton coal-fired power station being decommissioned in 2025, the fate of the coal mine and its workers is uncertain. (AP Photo/Natalie Behring)

“If we can show that the plant can be built cheaply and on time, we will have orders for additional Natrium reactors even before the start of the first one. In the 2030s, there will be a massive demand for this type of energy,” Lévesque said.

One drawback: the fuel for the plant, at least initially, would have to come from Russia. The plant will require 20% enriched uranium fuel, four times more than in conventional nuclear power plants. The United States does not currently enrich fuel to this level for commercial power.

Moreover, pointed out Lévesque, about a fifth of conventional nuclear fuel is also imported.

So far, concerns in Wyoming about the project have been few. The Wyoming Outdoor Council, noting the falling cost of solar and wind power, points out that nuclear remains expensive and sodium-cooled in other countries have had leaks leading to fires and shutdowns.

Between games of pool at the Grumpies bar, Colt Quintard, a 30-year-old coal mine worker, said he was not as convinced as others that the nuclear plant would be a boon to the community.

He worries that many of the factory’s full-time workers come from out of town because of the training needed and that others live in bigger cities and commute. He is willing to train to work at the nuclear plant, but said he would probably have to return to work in the county as a diesel mechanic, preventing him from seeing his 2-year-old daughter each night.

Steam rises from a chimney at the PacifiCorp coal-fired power plant at Naughton, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Kemmerer, Wyo. (AP Photo/Natalie Behring)

“I don’t think this community will benefit the way a lot of people think,” Quintard said. “Change is going to happen, regardless. We can not do anything.

Rocky Mountain Power employee Crystal Bowen has no such concerns, saying the plant should allow her and other Rocky Mountain Power members to transition to jobs at the new plant. Bowen said his online research into nuclear technology has allayed any concerns.

“It was quite shocking, back in 2019, when we learned that the plant’s spell wasn’t as long as we thought it would be,” said Bowen, who works in payroll and has been a lifelong community resident. “I didn’t want to have to leave. I have children here. I have relatives here and the idea of ​​having to move to another place was quite scary.

She added: “I don’t know if Kemmerer would have survived if we had lost the power plant and the coal mine. It may have just turned into a ghost town.

TerraPower is committed to training workers so anyone interested can switch to work at the nuclear plant when it opens, said Naughton coal plant manager Rodger Holt.

Kemmerer beat out three other Wyoming towns for the nuclear power plant: nearby Rock Springs, Gillette in a coal-rich northeast part of the state, and Glenrock in east-central Wyoming. Naughton plant employees, with experience on equipment such as generators that are used in both coal and nuclear power plants, were a major reason for locating the plant in Kemmerer, according to TerraPower.

The plant remains years away – 2028 is the current estimate – but has already sparked real estate interest and is “breathing new life into the city”, Mayor Bill Thek said.

Gates’ reputation as a global supporter of the development and distribution of vaccines – against COVID-19, malaria and other diseases that have killed millions around the world – has also earned him skepticism in the world. Wyoming, a deeply conservative state among the least vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Gates, Microsoft’s famed co-founder, launched Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower in 2008 and serves as chairman of its board. Asked about the billionaire, most of the townspeople fell silent.

Thek laughed when asked and said he didn’t want to “untangle Bill Gates” and said “everyone knows who Bill Gates is”, while reminding that the US government will pay for half of the project.

“He put his money in there and that was it, period,” Thek said.

Gates and Thek agree on one thing: TerraPower’s planned Natrium plant could hold the key to cleaner energy, not just for Kemmerer and Wyoming, but for the entire world.

“I’m not really on the train that everything is going to be green,” said Thek, who describes himself as a conservative. “But I am absolutely for saving our environment. If we get involved on the ground floor in safeguarding and improving our environment, I’m all for it.

Barbara M. Stokes