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by Allen Best

Big Pivots

Hopes abound in Wyoming that the state can survive the collapse of coal by being at the front edge of a renaissance of new nuclear technology that deploys small modular reactors.

A diverse public-private partnership that includes Bill Gates announced that one of four existing coal-fired power plants in Wyoming will by 2028 become the site of a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled nuclear power plant.

The nuclear plant will be combined with a molten-salt energy storage system, which will potentially boost the output to 500 megawatts for more than 5.5 hours when needed.

As explained by WyoFile and by the Casper Star-Tribune, the project is to be a demonstration project, with developers hoping to see the technology used nationwide.

Partners in the multi-billion-dollar projects are the U.S. Department of Energy, PacifiCorp, and TerraPower. Gates is the founder and chairman.

WyoFile explains that the project will be  a 50-50 cost share between the private sector, TerraPower in this case, and the public, said Chris Levesque, chief executive of TerraPower.

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded TerraPower $80 million in 2020 to demonstrate its Natrium technology.

PacifiCorp already operates several coal-fired power plants in Wyoming, although it plans to close them down.

This was published in Big Pivots 39 on June 8, 2021.

The plan seems to have the support of the Biden administration. WyoFile reported that among the speakers at the Cheyenne press conference was Jennifer Granholm, secretary of energy, who said the Biden administration sees the Natrium project as a starting point for replacing fossil-fuel-generated power in the U.S. in a way that doesn’t leave mining communities in the cold.

There’s another reason for using existing coal-burning sites, as explained by the Casper Star-Tribune. The smaller modular rectors will be designed to replace coal-fired plants, because it’s a huge cost savings. Using existing connections to the electrical grid and the existing cooling systems of coal-fired power plants will save money.

“Using the already existent cooling systems could save hundreds of millions of dollars,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.

Gary Hoogeveen, president and chief executive of Rocky Mountain Power, the subsidiary of PacifiCorp in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, said at a press conference in Cheyenne that nuclear will help utilities to achieve their emission-free goals.

“We know as a utility … that you can’t do 100% renewable and battery power and serve 24/7—not with the current technology that we have,” he said. “That’s what’s so exciting about today, because this technology can allow us to provide carbon-free electricity 24/7, 365. And that is amazing. There’s no other word for it.”

The cost of the project was not disclosed, and the Powder River Basin Resource Council posed questions about employing “an experimental and unproven” technology. Too, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to license a design.

What may be in play is a bill sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, that was signed into law in 2019 by President Donald Trump. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act changed licensing procedures.

Many have long contended that a fleet of small modular reactors will be necessary to eliminate emissions from electrical production even as electricity dislodges fossil fuels in other sectors, including transportation and buildings.

Nuclear got a black eye in the United States, as around the world, because of Three Mile Island and other incidents in Japan and in Russia. Nuclear reactors have also become extraordinarily expensive. Even so, the nuclear reactors mostly put in place in the 1970s last year produce nearly 20% of total U.S. electricity generation, a consistent figure for the last 30 years.

The Energy Information Administration reports that the United States has 94 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 56 nuclear power plants in 28 states. The average age of the plants was 39 years. The combined generating capacity was 96,555 megawatts.

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