This story was originally published by High Country News and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Silhouetted against an open-pit coal mine, steam billows from stacks at the Naughton Power Plant outside Kemmerer, Wyoming. For now, anyway; the coal units will retire in 2025. “I’ve been watching the town for a lot of years, since the railroad stopped using coal, and they said the town was dead then,” said John Sawaya, a longtime resident and retired shop owner. “Then one thing after another seemed to come in and keep the place going.” Now, the new thing is nuclear energy.
Wyoming produces more coal than any other state, but low natural gas prices and a push for renewable energy caused production to fall by 21 percent in 2020. As coal revenue declines, leaders are looking to nuclear for help. TerraPower, a nuclear reactor company co-founded by Bill Gates, is partnering with power company PacifiCorp to open a 345-megawatt reactor in Kemmerer by 2028—with a multibillion-dollar price tag, some of which will come from federal funds.
The Kemmerer plant, called a Natrium reactor, is one of several “next generation” nuclear reactors in the works for the West, along with plants in southern Washington and at the Idaho National Laboratory, even as aging reactors largely built in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s are being retired. Both types of reactors generate power through fission, when uranium atoms collide with neutrons and split, releasing energy in the form of heat and radiation. But they use different materials to collect that heat and cool their cores: Traditional reactors use water, while a Natrium uses liquid sodium. (This is partly why older reactors are clustered east of the Mississippi River; they need access to surface water.) In a Natrium, heat is transferred to molten salt, to be either stored or used to generate power via steam turbines.
Liquid sodium is safer because its boiling point is much higher than water’s, which can help prevent meltdowns, said TerraPower spokesperson Jeff Navin. “We wanted to create a reactor that is going to dramatically improve on the safety case of existing conventional technology.” But not everyone’s convinced: A 2021 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists states that when it comes to both the likelihood of a catastrophic accident and the creation of nuclear waste, the new reactors “fail to provide significant enough improvements … to justify their considerable risks.”
Sodium coolant can burn if water or air sneaks into closed chambers, and the reactors can experience hard-to-control rapid power increases, according to the group. TerraPower says its design will produce five times less waste by volume per megawatt hour than conventional reactors, because of TerraPower plants’ fuel efficiency. But a recent analysis by geochemist Lindsay Krall, who studies reactor waste, found that reactors using sodium instead of water result in a higher quantity of radioactive materials that need long-term storage.
The project comes as utilities are trying to meet clean power goals across the Northwest. Wyoming supplies energy to states like Oregon and Washington, and maintaining those exports will require a shift toward sources that emit less carbon than coal does. “I think what’s really come together is a broader public recognition of the need to address climate change,” said Alice Caponiti, who leads advanced reactor deployment for the U.S. Department of Energy. “I do think that’s a crystallizing focus.”
TerraPower honed in on Wyoming in part because its soon-to-be-retired coal plants offer infrastructure and a skilled workforce, according to Navin. In addition, many Wyomingites have already granted “social license” to industrial electricity generation. “There’s a bucking horse on everything and a pride for producing energy [in Wyoming],” said Scott Quillinan, senior research director at the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources. A recent survey in Kemmerer, for example, found that the vast majority of respondents support the nuclear plant. A statewide survey by the University of Wyoming, however, found that many people want more information to better understand the likely trade-offs.
That includes economic impacts. An estimated 1,600 coal jobs statewide could disappear over the next decade, and TerraPower says its plant will provide 2,000 construction jobs and 250 jobs operationally. But the bulk of coal revenue comes from sources other than jobs—coal bonuses, severance taxes, and mineral royalties—to the tune of $2 billion in 2020. Nuclear energy will only bolster local property taxes and state sales, and use taxes. The Wyoming Legislature recently passed a bill to tax nuclear energy at $5 per megawatt-hour, but TerraPower’s facility is exempt. “There’s going to be a revenue gap,” said Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney at the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “[Nuclear] is this shiny object that everyone seems really excited about, but it’s not the transition.”
Still, nuclear energy is giving Kemmerer residents hope. Sawaya believes the Natrium plant will be beneficial—unless construction workers crowd his favorite fishing hole, that is. “I think the town will still be here at the end of the next century,” he said. “Things keep changing, and so far the town’s changed with ’em.”