PacifiCorp and Bellevue Wash.-based TerraPower announced plans June 1 to potentially site an advanced nuclear reactor at one of PacifiCorp's four coal-fired power plants in Wyoming slated for retirement.

The demonstration project would use TerraPower's 345-MW sodium-cooled reactor with an integrated molten salt energy storage system that could increase facility's output to 500 MW for more than 5 1/2 hours. The company co-developed its Natrium reactor technology with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, with the backing of the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. In October 2020, TerraPower was awarded $80 million in initial funding for the project.

In a press conference, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon called siting an advance reactor in Wyoming a "game changer," while touting the jobs that would be created by the demonstration project, noting that it could "replace the jobs at an existing coal-fired power plant."

Gordon said the uranium used in the plant would also be mined in Wyoming.

"I am thrilled to see Wyoming selected for this demonstration pilot project, as 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," Gordon said. "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."

PacifiCorp and TerraPower hope to have a site selected by the end of the year and will chose from four potential locations—Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Dave Johnston in Glenrock, Naughton in Kemmerer, and Wyodak near Gillette.

The virtual press conference featured Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Sen. John Brasso (R-Wyo.), several state representatives, and a prepared video from Bill Gates, chairman of the board of TerraPower.

It was also a brief truce in the dispute state Legislature and Gordon have with PacifiCorp over the utility's plan to retire its Wyoming coal units.

The dispute included an investigation into the utility's integrated resource plan by state regulators that essentially put the plan on trial by calling witnesses and cross-examining PacifiCorp executives on inputs and assumptions that went into its modeling (CU No. 1962 [15]).

The state has also passed several laws aimed at protecting coal power in the state.

Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of PacifiCorp unit Rocky Mountain Power, said the utility has been providing safe and reliable power in Wyoming for over 100 years and hopes to be a great partner for the next 100 years.

"But our business is changing and it has not been easy for anyone, particularly the state of Wyoming," he said. "We have provided 24/7/365 power for over 100 years, but that requirement now is changing as the goal to decarbonize the electric sector progresses."

Hoogeveen said RMP and PacifiCorp will continue to provide reliable power, but "without a project like Natrium, I don't know how we would do that." He said PacifiCorp is currently building a lot of wind and solar, but "as everyone in the utility industry knows, renewables can't provide 24/7/365 power, not with the current technology that we have."

Natrium will provide carbon-free electricity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and "that is amazing—there's no other word for it." Hoogeveen said.

He described potentially developing the demonstration project at the site of a retiring coal plant as a "unique opportunity for the company and the communities that we serve" and said the company is not "accelerating coal plant closures by adopting this technology."

"The economics will stand on their own whether coal plants continue to operate or not," he said, noting that if the company's integrated resource plan shows the plants should retire, then the next best option would be the Natrium project.

But he said he wanted to be clear that "this project must be cost effective for our customers in order to proceed—and I believe it will—and we will show that through our integrated resource plan."

The Natrium demonstration project is expected to produce an operating plant by mid-2028, and would be the first reactor of its kind, as well as one of the first small modular reactors in the country and the world.

No timeline, or the costs of construction were given during the press conference, but one local environmental group was skeptical of the plan.

Marcia Westkott, chair of Powder River Basin Resource Council, said in a statement that her group supports efforts to reduce carbon emissions, but has many questions surrounding the 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," she said. "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. 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."

Along with PacifiCorp, TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, members of the demonstration project team include engineering and construction partner Bechtel, Energy Northwest, Duke Energy and nearly a dozen additional companies, universities and national laboratories.

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Editor - Clearing Up

Steve began covering energy policy and resource development in the Pacific Northwest in 1999. He’s been editor of Clearing Up since 2003, and has been a fellow at the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and University of Texas.