Kemmerer Selected as TerraPower’s Preferred Site for Natrium Nuclear Reactor Demonstration Project

Photo by Mark Tesoro.

Last week, on Nov. 16, TerraPower announced that the preferred location of their new power plant would be near Kemmerer. The Kemmerer site beat out competing locations in Gillette, Rock Springs and Glenrock, and all four sites had their unique advantages and disadvantages. Some of these included the timetable of when their plants would close, resident populations, community enthusiasm, existing infrastructure, water sources, proximity to sources of uranium and even the rest of the power grid.

The decision was announced by TerraPower’s President and CEO Chris Levesque during a 2 p.m. media call last Tuesday. While this was ostensibly a well-guarded secret, the news eventually leaked to various sources an hour or two before Levesque was to speak.

“Since we first announced that Wyoming would be the location for our demonstration project back in June, we’ve been diligently evaluating four towns as potential sites…after a very thorough review, I’m excited to let you know that we’ve chosen Kemmerer, in western Wyoming, as the preferred project site,” Levesque said.

“The ultimate decision came down to various technical criteria. This was an all-inclusive, rigorous process. Our team spent five months visiting each community…we collected data and evaluated the information against our regulatory and project requirement,” he continued.

The reactor, which features a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system, which allows it to be a flexible and renewable power source. More specifically, the reactor is able to amplify its power output up to 500 MW for approximately 5.5 hours, allowing it to react to the ever-changing demands of the power grid. Put another way, this maximum power output would be enough to power 400,000 homes. According to 2019 data from the Census Bureau, Wyoming has an estimated 280,000 homes.

Levesque was also quick to point out another reason that the Naughton site was chosen: the flexibility of the retiring coal plant’s work force in being retrained for the Natrium plant.

“One of the reasons we’re building Natrium at a coal plant that was scheduled for retirement is because of the great workforce there. We expect the Natrium plant to need about the same-sized crew to operate a plant like the Naughton site…Operating a coal plant is very high-tech, and we think those workers are fully ready to operate Natrium. Of course, they’ll have to go through some retraining, and the operators will have to be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” he said.

In order to further the transition from coal to nuclear, Levesque said they were working on a training simulator for operators, which is still in the works and will require final approval from the NRC.

Rocky Mountain Power’s CEO Gary Hoogeveen also weighed in on the good news:

“I think Kemmerer’s a terrific place. The Naughton power plant employees are wonderful operators, and they, I believe, are going to be great candidates to run the new Natrium plant in Kemmerer,” Hoogeveen said.

Asked about how the plant would affect ratepayers in the region, Hoogeveen said the Natrium plant meets their long-term Integrated Resource Plan’s goals in providing the most amount of power for the lowest amount of money.

Levesque also weighed in, citing the country’s growing electricity consumption and recent policy changes from the Department of Energy and Congress as being strong motivators.

“The expectation is the ratepayers only pay a fair price for 60 years of electricity,” Levesque added.

The reactor is anticipated to cost $4 billion, with the federal government providing a $2 billion grant from the recently funded infrastructure bill to help offset TerraPower’s initial development and design costs. Despite this grant, Levesque pointed out this first demonstration plant would not be profitable for TerraPower. Rather, their goal is to create a model reactor that becomes adopted across the United States and abroad.

While that price tag may seem staggering, Levesque was happy to elaborate on why that price tag was not indicative of future plants.

“The first project is a demonstration…it includes first-of-a-kind risk, first-time design, and the licensing process with the NRC, which is extensive…Which will [also] involve public meetings in Wyoming, where the people of Wyoming will have a chance to learn more about the project and the regulator will be listening to you all…The first project includes supply chain investments…a fuel fabrication facility [and] other fuel cycle investments,” he said.

Levesque also added that there are about 300 engineers in three different locations working on the project and that he expects to double in the next year.

Another question that came up during the announcement was how this Natrium project would be different from water-cooled reactors of the past.

“Today’s reactors in the U.S. are very safe, but Natrium will be that next improvement on safety. Importantly, it won’t rely on outside sources of power or pumps and extra equipment to help the plant recover following an emergency. If I was to compare it to Fukushima…a plant that shut down very safely after the earthquake, but the problem was when the tsunami came, it wiped out the diesel generators and some of the pumps that were being used to remove a small amount of residual heat from the reactor. We won’t need those diesel engines, we won’t need pumps, because we’re going to rely on air-cooling,” he explained.

He also touted the financial benefits of not needing NRC-regulated pumps or diesel engines as being instrumental in lowering the overall price tag. 

Asked about how the other three sites compared to Kemmerer, Levesque and Hoogeveen stated that there was no official ranking, but noted that all three sites are still contenders for future reactors in Wyoming and that “any of them could do it.”

Levesque also added at the end of his announcement that they’d be meeting with local leaders in Kemmerer in January to hammer out the finer details of the upcoming construction work to avoid overwhelming the local infrastructure. The project is estimated to bring in about 2,000 temporary jobs for the plant’s peak construction time. After completion, the reactor is projected to require about 250 jobs for the day-to-day maintenance of the project.

Residents of Kemmerer were generally positive about the big news, and word quickly spread throughout the community and on their Facebook pages.

“I know that my employees, a lot of them have husbands that work at the mine, and they’re very excited for it. I think it’s good for the town of Kemmerer…it means that it’ll grow,” Marchane Hunt, Director of the Senior Center, said.

“I think it’ll bring great change to Kemmerer…businesses are going to come here, people are going to come here, Kemmerer’s not going to be a little small country town anymore,” Kemmerer resident Frieda Jackson said.

The enthusiasm was also fully visible in the Kemmerer community’s Facebook pages, with multiple people sharing links to the multitude of papers writing about it.

“Heck yeah! Kemmerer needs this boost!” Sherrol Sloan wrote.

“Great news, just when I thought Kemmerer would turn into dust and blow away, this happens! That’s awesome,” Dylan Shepard said.

Despite the underlying excitement and enthusiasm for TerraPower’s decision, some were more vocal about their disdain for the decision.

Of the four people the Gazette spoke to about the decision in-person, all refused to be quoted.

Such criticisms were also missing from the community’s main Facebook page, with most comments being in support of the decision.

However, the community’s “uncensored” page was replete with criticisms about the announcement, with most focusing on unfounded conspiracy theories or oft-quoted misinformation about Bill Gates.

“Experimental and Bill Gates is the worry,” Janelle Johnson wrote when asked.

“Bill Gates is...trying to tell people what to do and how to do it. He thinks he is important because he has...[a] ton of money,” Andrew Hennings also wrote.

“I also want to mention that he wants to depopulate the world. Try to do a little more research,” Janet Legarra added.

With these reactions in mind, TerraPower’s decision is still likely to invite more valid criticisms from residents who espouse “not in my back yard” sentiments, or NIMBY.

The acronym refers to the phenomenon that occurs when individuals who might nominally support major initiatives like building a nuclear power plant, actually oppose such initiatives when the affected community is their own. Instead, they would prefer that it be built somewhere else— as long as it is not in their own backyard. And when it comes to NIMBY, there are a great number of proposed projects that this can apply to. Such examples can include landfills, wind turbines, highway expansions and so on.

Regardless, local officials like Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek were elated at the news.

“I am absolutely giddy with excitement…we got support from every community within the county, and some even outside the county…all the surrounding communities are going to benefit from this in one way or another— I am absolutely ecstatic,” Thek said.

TerraPower expects the plant to become operational within seven years, meeting the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Project schedule as mandated by Congress.

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