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.
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.
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.