TerraPower’s Natrium nuclear power plant in Kemmerer might help Oregon accomplish its climate action plan by helping to replace coal power, but state regulators, concerned by the project’s unprecedented timeline, aren’t yet willing to bet on it.
The Oregon Public Utility Commission in March declined to formally acknowledge PacifiCorp’s plans for Natrium to be a part of its future electrical generation portfolio.
“This project is just so early that we don’t really feel like we can give it that kind of weight,” Oregon PUC Commissioner Mark Thompson said. “That’s not because PacifiCorp has done something wrong. I just think it’s just not knowable. It’s so early on.”
The commission approved the balance of PacifiCorp’s “integrated resource plan” for how it will meet future power needs for its Oregon customers. Commissioners said they remain open to including Natrium in future filings from PacifiCorp.
Why it matters
Natrium skeptics have noted that crucial federal funding for the project is tied to meeting aggressive deadlines. The commission’s decision appears to be the first instance of a regulatory body acting on similar concerns.
PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, is a regulated utility providing electrical power to customers in six western states, including Oregon. State public utility authorities must approve plans for new electrical generation facilities before a utility is allowed to tap ratepayers to cover the cost.
PacifiCorp’s 2021 integrated resource plan calls for decommissioning its entire coal-fired power fleet by 2039 and adding more wind, solar and battery storage to its six-state operating system. It also hopes to add “advanced nuclear power,” beginning with the first-of-its-kind Natrium plant in Wyoming.
The U.S. Department of Energy is backing the Natrium project in Kemmerer with grants to cover half of the estimated $4 billion cost, and set an in-service deadline of 2028. Meeting that deadline will require an unprecedented pace of construction and regulatory clearance for an American utility-scale nuclear power plant. PacifiCorp has said it intends to take over ownership of the plant sometime after a trial operating period.
U.S. sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine could complicate that timeline, however. Russia-owned Tenex operates the only facility currently able to supply commercial volumes of the high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel the Natrium design requires.
Who said what
There are “many unanswered risks” related to whether the Natrium project might go online by 2028, Oregon PUC Chairwoman Megan Decker said. However, Decker and other commissioners encouraged PacifiCorp to keep them updated on the Natrium project as it advances.
The decision by Oregon’s PUC “has no effect on TerraPower’s schedule to deliver the Natrium plant in Wyoming,” according to a TerraPower spokesperson.
“PacifiCorp and TerraPower understand that PacifiCorp will only move forward if the Natrium demonstration project brings value to our customers,” PacifiCorp spokeswoman Tiffany Erickson said.