Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds open house in Kemmerer

Representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited Kemmerer last week, where they presented to a nearly-full event center. Officials addressed concerns of community members, saying they want to involve the public in the process of bringing a nuclear facility to south Lincoln County. (GAZETTE PHOTO/Rana Jones)

KEMMERER — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission presented to a packed room at the event center in Kemmerer during a meeting last week. The purpose of the event, held Tuesday, Nov. 7, was to inform the community of the upcoming application from TerraPower, which is expected to be turned in by March of 2024.

NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell said that, although TerraPower has not yet submitted an application for construction, their team was there to answer questions from residents and make sure people know how they can participate.

“There are opportunities for the public to take part in the process,” he said.

Burnell said while TerraPower and the NRC are in a “pre-application space,” they have had conversations with each other to make sure the company understands what data the regulatory agency will need.

“If a company wants to build and operate a nuclear plant in this country, they have to pass our bar for acceptability,” he said.

Acknowledging that TerraPower’s first generation Natrium nuclear reactor uses new liquid sodium cooling technologies and therefore operates differently, Burnell said “there is a knowledge base for us to draw from. The reactor is the first of its kind but there are requirements that any reactor must meet and that is what we are going to judge the company’s information against. We are confident we can do our job once we have the information we need.” 

After an informal open house, there was a brief presentation by an NRC panel. Among them was Advanced Reactor Licensing Branch Chief Bill Jessup, who described the two-step licensing process that TerraPower will be expected to abide by. He explained how the construction and operation permits are independent of each other with different components. 

In a question-and-answer session, topics of concern involved safety issues, water consumption and waste management. The NRC has comprehensive rules for waste handling, and TerraPower has indicated plans for on-site storage.

Solutions for permanent waste storage remain open, with the Department of Energy exploring potential sites. The NRC acknowledged this as an ongoing issue and promised a more detailed response in the future.

An audience member asked if there were applications that had been denied by the NRC. Application reviews can take years to complete, and a member of the NRC panel confirmed that last year there was a “fast reactor” in Idaho that was denied for allegedly failing to provide sufficient information on the facility’s design.

Other concerns involved the timeline for the proposed nuclear plant, with one audience member asking if it could be sped up. Typically, the NRC review can take years to complete but NRC Senior Licensing Project Manager Mallecia Sutton said, “The timelines won’t necessarily take a full 10 years to complete.” There is an expectation that TerraPower will trim that timeline even further by filing information ahead of schedule.

For the environmental side of things, NRC Environmental Project Manager Patricia Vokoun spoke to the Gazette about water issues. She said any water that is released back out must pass EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations.

“We govern the radiation in the water,” Vokoun said. “This region is more arid, so there is less running into wetlands. That makes the water management easier.”

The NRC plans to continue to inform and hear from the public as the TerraPower application process continues. With the Rocky Mountain Power announcement of the closing of the coal-powered plant in Kemmerer, some see the nuclear plant as a solution to the potential economic devastation from that loss.

There have been some mixed responses; while some hope the process for the nuclear plant’s approval will be accelerated, others are concerned about the unknowns of a first-generation nuclear reactor.

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