TerraPower Founder and Chairman Bill Gates speaks in a recorded video message during the June 2, 2021 press conference announcing efforts to advance a Natrium reactor demonstration project in Wyoming. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

I’m now adding nuclear power as the second leg — alongside utility-scale solar — of what should become Wyoming’s energy development strategy. 

Wyoming has the land mass to support more than a single 345-megawatt nuclear energy plant near Kemmerer, and the state needs to make it abundantly clear to the industry that it wants to expand that number and position itself as the Silicon Valley for nuclear power.

Opinion

Nuclear got a bad reputation after disasters such as Chernobyl and the relatively recent 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The longest running sitcom in history, “The Simpsons,” playfully mocks the industry by featuring Homer as Springfield’s plant safety supervisor, where he uses fuel rods as paperweights. Yet nuclear is one of the safest sources of energy. Measured by deaths, nuclear is 350 times less dangerous than coal and 40 times less dangerous than natural gas.

Lest anyone dismiss this data, 32 countries operate over 500 nuclear plants throughout the world, and each of the top dozen nuclear generating-countries are located in the environmentally cautious region of Europe, where France generates 70% of its electricity using nuclear power.

Here in the U.S., the average age of a U.S. nuclear plant is 39 years, and all but three of the country’s plants are outside the Western Interconnection power grid, which is what Wyoming uses to connect to massive consumers of electricity such as California and Arizona. Given the political and environmental climate we now have, Wyoming has a huge opportunity for leadership if Cheyenne plays this right. But Wyoming’s leadership needs to acknowledge that the state is in a race with other parts of the country — and as Wyoming transitions away from coal, the stakes are high.

The great news is that the field is wide-open, not just to participate in the next generation of nuclear energy, but to lead it. TerraPower’s decision to build its forthcoming plant in Kemmerer is just the head-start required to dominate not only electrical generation, but the industry generally. Let me explain.

When wind generation took off in the United States, Wyoming made two critical mistakes. First, through the state’s actions, Wyoming limited the number of turbines, hoping doing so would “save coal.” But all that did was give jobs and revenue to other states such as Iowa, Kansas and Colorado. 

Second, Wyoming failed to capture any of the upstream value chain by not seeing the opportunity to create supporting manufacturing and service jobs. A wind turbine has about 8,000 parts, and rotates blades that reach 250 feet in length. Because of this, there are more than 500 manufacturing facilities in the U.S. building blades, towers and other components to support the wind-energy sector. Yet despite our open space, skilled labor force, extensive rail and highway network and strategic positioning within the center of the nation’s wind corridor, not one of those major manufacturing plants is in Wyoming.

I guess that should not be surprising. To the wind industry, Wyoming not only failed to roll out the welcome mat. By trying to protect coal, the state also shut the doors and pulled down the shades.

Today, Wyoming has a chance to get this right with an even bigger opportunity. Bill Gates and Rocky Mountain Power won’t be the only entities chasing the next generation of nuclear power, and the state must begin its strategy by making clear it is open for business and will fight for the next plant. The 345-megawatt facility proposed for Kemmerer is relatively small, but larger-scale nuclear plants employ an average of 500 people and provide jobs that pay about 35% more than the local average salary. Just as exciting, thousands more skilled workers are required to construct each plant, which take years to build. 

Wyoming needs to demonstrate a targeted commitment to nuclear technology that exceeds that of every other state, and in so doing transitions Wyoming and its at-risk communities into the next chapter of growth.

DAve dodson

Going forward, Wyoming should negotiate multi-location deals with developers. That way, Lincoln County won’t be the place where all the kinks get worked out, only to have Iowa or Idaho become home to the nation’s nuclear scale-up. Instead, Wyoming ensures that Kemmerer becomes the birthplace of a growing industrial sector for the state.

Wyoming should also not neglect the rest of the value chain. If a wind turbine has 8,000 parts, one can only imagine the job opportunity for states that create the know-how and infrastructure to build and sell goods and services to nuclear plants nationwide. This begins by making the University of Wyoming the expertise epicenter for the next generation of nuclear knowledge and proficiency. By taking a page out of Stanford and Berkeley’s role in creating Silicon Valley, this can be the keystone to positioning the state as the center where industry participants collaborate and work side by side. Because grants for government work are handed out like Halloween candy in Washington, D.C., a hard-working Congressional delegation could play a material role in steering that money to the University of Wyoming.

With increasing concerns over climate change, both political parties have accepted nuclear as a component of our energy future, as evidenced by the billions allocated to nuclear in the recent infrastructure bill, including $2 billion for the proposed plant in Kemmerer. But the state must move quickly and decisively. 

Wyoming won’t win if it tells the industry it supports nuclear along with every other energy source in an “all-the-above” strategy. Wyoming needs to demonstrate a targeted commitment to nuclear technology that exceeds that of every other state, and in so doing transitions Wyoming and its at-risk communities into the next chapter of growth.

Dave Dodson

David Dodson is a resident of Wyoming and an entrepreneur who has helped create over 20,000 private sector jobs. He is on the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he teaches courses...

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  1. Ten or more years ago I looked at all the energy options. At that time I was disappointed that coal industry had done so little to produce a clean product. The four corners emissions that could be seen from space should have sent a message to coal. They didn’t get it. So then what were the alternatives. Wind which should be a no brainer in Wyoming but it has some undesirable environmental impacts. Solar the same. That leaves nuclear. It’s not ideal but it’s best of the available alternatives. Done right it has the least bad impacts. Also if we can find a good workable model and produce that model in sufficient numbers it can be very cost competitive. We need to promote nuclear power in Wyoming

  2. I am all in favor of nuclear power — but this molten sodium heat exchanger scares me silly. The USNavy tried one in a submarine (the Seawolf) — small and not constrained by profit motive — and abandoned the idea. Russia tried a different molton metal design in subs — and their first one (K-27) blew up at sea and killed nine people; later iterations performed well but cost far, far too much to maintain and the idea was abandoned. No one has succeeded with a commercial application. A huge project in Japan, the Monju nuclear power plant, blew up, due probably to a bad weld in the piping, and was eventually abandoned, having produced only one hour of electricity after 15 years or so. If this one goes bad (and I predict it will), who cleans it up? Is it ‘self-‘ (that is to say, not at all) bonded?

  3. Today’s Wall Street Journal:

    “Nuclear-Fusion Startup Lands $1.8 Billion as Investors Chase Star Power”

    “No one has been able to generate net energy by combining atoms, yet Commonwealth Fusion Systems has attracted Bill Gates and George Soros….”

    Maybe WY can get Bill’s money for fusion, too.

  4. Goodness, what a Wonderful opportunity to waste billions of dollars on the chance to spread yet more nuclear radiation waste around the country. And the better thing yet is that nuclear waste will last for thousands of years, rendering huge areas radioactive. Just does not get any better that that!

  5. Dave: I hate to tell you this – but you’re from a different world than the rest of us in Wyoming. Why? Silicon Valley startups were a cake walk – easy trucking Dave.
    In our world, we live by BLM Resource Management Plans, USFS Forest Plans, the Endangered Species Act, NEPA and Environmental Impact Statements, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Acts, hundreds of others, open public hearings and comments by any citizen of the US, full review by all tribes in the US and finally review of our projects by the Federal court system. Were the Silicon Valley startups subject to this level of review??
    Example, the grizzly bear listing/delisting decision is decided by liberal judges in Montana and Idaho and thence on to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. How do you think we feel knowing they have the ultimate decision making authority over grizzly bears and natrium development in Wyoming. Terrifying thought if your a proponent of nuclear. Did the Silicon Valley startups have to go through this level of legal review at every step? Thats the world we live in.
    Wyoming has no political influence in Washington – we don’t have enough votes to even be of consequence. The voters and their Congressional delegates on the east and west coasts have the power, and if they decide to kill natrium in Wyoming, they can do it. They probably have the power to get projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines cancelled by permit revocation after construction starts. Were the Silicon Valley startups subject to permit revocation and total shutdown?? I think not.
    Our most wealthy citizens, the mega billionaires, are investing heavily in large real estate holdings – the Ted Turner types – but they are being very cautious and buying large land holdings of private land without Federal lands – mostly in the mid west. None of them want to deal with the problems we have in areas of large Federal land ownership and split estate in the west. That’s right, avoid the west if you want a problem free investment – and it works – Ted has over 55,000 head of buffalo now without going through an EIS and review by the 9th. Try that in Wyoming!!!
    Silicon Valley was easy – these projects that need Federal permits and EISs are bloody difficult if not impossible – and there are hundreds of organizations that can challenge the permits and EIS decisions in Federal court. A very difficult world to conduct business in – better off buying another buffalo ranch in South Dakota – which Ted just did – than investing in natrium in Wyoming.

  6. A POLITICAL CLIMATE OF UNCERTAINTY: I can’t imagine the natrium project moving forward without substantial delays and cost over runs in a political climate of uncertainty. We live in a world where one administration encourages and approves a project and the next one cancels the permits – the business climate changes with every election. And even if the natrium project can surmount the formidable EIS requirements, the final say is with the Federal courts – they are the ultimate authority and a single judge can nix a project. Its just that the American system is very, very complex and difficult to navigate through. I foresee the TerraPower natrium project having to fight its way through a regulatory and political mine field of uncertainty and ultimately be subject to legal review in the Federal court system which isn’t all bad – but for a project like this to be pulled off without a hitch – no way. 98% probability it won’t be a smooth roll out.
    Look at some Canadian developments of late – we are so unpredictable that Canada is looking at building an oil pipeline from the Athabaska oil shales to British Columbia because we are cancelling oil pipelines here – the oil produced just north of us could very possibly be headed for Asia. And I read lately that some local coals, probably Montana coal, is being moved north into Canada by train and then west to export terminals in BC while, at the same time, Wyoming coal has been blocked from export from Washington state. The same problems – our inherent regulatory, legal and political system is styming progress – and I see it interfering in the proposed natrium project in a big way. We can’t even produce and harvest our own timber anymore – but its OK for it to burn. If you can’t operate a sawmill in the US anymore, how can you bring a natrium project online?? We no longer are a nation of CAN DO people – we’ve become a nation of IMPOSSIBLE TO GET THE JOB DONE people. And Wyoming expects this project to move forward in this business climate?? I don’t think so.

    1. Mr. Campbell, you make an excellent detailed and thoughtful analysis. Can’t imagine what Mr. Dodson can be thinking here.

  7. Two words of rebuttal for you , Dave :
    NUCLEAR WASTE

    – which you mention nowhere in this essay. So ….?

  8. The nuclear industry has historically made bold promises and failed to deliver in a timely or frugal manner. Nuclear is extremely capital-intensive, and has been historically susceptible to massive cost overruns. This time may be different, but the state would be well served with a more cautious approach to the industry, rather than diving in feet first.

    I am particularly concerned about taxpayers being on the hook for new infrastructure and the costs of remediating the Kemmerer site if TerraPower’s plans fail to materialize. Additionally, if the state makes new investments in job training or business development, but small-scale nuclear reactors fail to proliferate, what is the potential cost to the state? How will the state be protected if development stalls on TerraPower’s site, and within the nuclear industry more broadly?

  9. As a 37 year nuclear plant worker I can say that they are safe, with many built in safety features. The accidents referred to at Chernobyl, which was caused by human error from government pressure to complete a test even though the conditions for a safe test were not me, and Fukushima, which was what is known as a beyond design basis event, no one ever expected a tsunami to breach the sea wall. The nuclear industry is one of the few that will analyze events and then come up with solutions to solve them. After TMI the industry rewrote all emergency procedures, required utilities to have a simulator modeled after the plant onsite for operator training and minimum number of simulator hours required. After Fukushima plants were required to build tornado proof buildings to house extra portable pumps and generators, along with equipment that could clear storm damage in order to maintain plant safety systems operating. After Chernobyl plants were required to reinforce standards of procedure usage and ensure test conditions were met and if anyone felt they were not the test would not be run. Not too many other industries can say they have the same rigor when it comes to learning from events. Nuclear makes more sense than wind and solar since it is base load, not subject to the weather. Runs 24/7.

    1. Fukushima is not over. The problem with a meltdown is it is a long-term disaster. They are still collecting massive amounts of radioactive water and then dumping it in the ocean. The Pacific will never recover. Radioactive water joins the flow of ocean currents and does not dissipate. Gradually every school of fish is affected.. Stories of melting starfish and disappearing baitfish and Salmon are a memory. But the reality of day fishing boats catching nothing and wetlands looking quiet and deserted is here to stay. We left California when it became clear that the government was hiding the obvious. You can’t fish or swim safely. No food in the ocean is good. Prevailing currents showed the hot spots right along the most popular beaches. But no warnings and no advisories to avoid swimming. We sold and got out. Most people don’t pay attention to the big picture.

  10. Wyoming would be much better served developing technology to utilize coal exhaust gas to make high quality bioplastics and fuels. Nuclear is a Sword of Damocles, just waiting for hackers and earthquakes, forget about the legacies of waste and decommissioning.

  11. As an ‘average Joe’ I’m all for renewables up to a point. However, I’m not so sure about Wyoming’s wind-turbin mistake. I hear the massive production of it (as you allude to in your article), is hugely dependent upon petroleum support, and worse, we haven’t figured out what to do with the waste, i.e., the huge propellers. Is wind really environmentally friendly as advertised?

    Second, as to nuclear power, I think that’s our best option, but again not my area. I like the vision you laid out and I hope we can be on the cutting edge of it and become the silicon valley of nuclear power. That would help our economy transition with the least disruption and give us the brightest future.

  12. Such an intelligent and farsighted
    and beautifully explained recommendation by Mr. Dodson! Wyoming, get to work on this right now!

  13. My children have abandoned Wyoming for better-paying jobs in Colorado. I go to Colorado regularly for different events that my grandchildren participate in. I had the opportunity to talk to one of the executives of a company that builds windmills. Some of those windmills are in Wyoming. He told me we missed a huge opportunity here in Wyoming because of our legislature stance on wind resources. We are the only state that taxes the production of wind electricity is just one example. We have been a top producer of energy and electricity. Most of what we produce builds economies in states other than Wyoming. Their economies have flourished. Instead of producing and sending it elsewhere, we need to use our resources to build Wyoming. We have had booms and busts in the past. Hopefully, our leaders won’t blow it this time with nuclear, as they have with the wind. We need to diversify our economy. Utah and Colorado weren’t as fortunate as Wyoming to have oil and gas resources and had to diversify. All a person has to do to see the difference is to take a trip through the front-range cities of Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs and look at their progressive attitude. I remember when Colorado was dying and their downtown was a ghost town. A lot has changed since then. The only difference between Wyoming and Colorado is its leadership.