A friend of mine says he has no problem with nuclear energy or “experimental” projects, but not when they are combined and linked to Wyoming.

I think it’s a sentiment many share. Residents know the state must find a replacement for fossil fuels to drive its economy, but offering the Equality State as the proving ground for new, “advanced” nuclear technology feels too risky.

Opinion

Count me as a member of this group. That puts me at odds with advocates for the Natrium nuclear demonstration project — like state executives or Kemmerer officials anxious to save their town, which was chosen for the $4 billion facility. They say Wyoming needs to roll the dice and rake in the riches.

Such unfettered optimism is alluring. It’s easy to admire the vision of TerraPower founder Bill Gates: nuclear power plants replacing coal-fired facilities across the country and thus cutting planet-destroying carbon emissions. I understand why many want to jump on this bandwagon.

I don’t generally view myself as a “not-in-my-backyard” kind of guy. In this instance, though, I think it’s imperative to scrutinize the project at every stage.

There are myriad reasons for this cautious approach. Yet federal and state officials want to remove regulatory barriers and go full-speed ahead.

Safety heads the list. Yes, nuclear energy has been part of the nation’s electrical generation mix for decades, but Gates claims the Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor, with molten salt-based energy storage, will produce less nuclear waste and be safer than a conventional light-water reactor.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, however, issued a report in March that sharply questions such assertions.

Sodium-cooled fast reactors, the report said, would likely be less “uranium-efficient” and not reduce the amount of waste that requires long-term isolation in a geologic repository. Sodium coolant can burn when exposed to air or water, and the organization said a demonstration project like the one proposed in Kemmerer “could experience uncontrollable power increases that result in rapid core melting.”

Gulp. If that scary scenario doesn’t warrant pumping the brakes in Wyoming, I don’t know what would.

But there are other important safety factors that also deserve attention. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under pressure to find carbon-free solutions to combat climate change, has been pushing to streamline safety and environmental reviews for advanced nuclear projects. The Wyoming Outdoor Council noted that the NRC is considering using a “generic” environmental impact statement, instead of detailed reviews of specific sites.

“We shouldn’t be cutting corners on health and safety to rush through an untested technology, and Wyoming’s harsh climate and seismic activity underscore the need for site-specific reviews,” WOC warned.

Wyoming officials, led by Gov. Mark Gordon, have enthusiastically endorsed the Natrium project, treating it purely as an economic windfall. But not only is there no guarantee such a boom will happen. In fact, other states’ and nations’ experiences strongly suggest it won’t.

In an open letter to Gates, Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer who has spent 50 years working in the industry, called out the billionaire for leveraging his fortune “to siphon precious taxpayer funds supporting your latest atomic contrivance in Wyoming.”

TerraPower has a huge financial stake in the Kemmerer project, committing a total of $2 billion. It’s money that the corporation won’t recoup unless Natrium proves to be a reliable, safe alternative to fossil fuels that can be efficiently replicated at other facilities.

What happens to Kemmerer and Wyoming if TerraPower’s critics are right and the plug is ultimately pulled for safety or economic reasons?

Kerry drake

But without the backing of the federal government, Gates likely wouldn’t be in the game. That’s because nuclear reactors typically run way over budget, if they’re completed at all. The 345-megawatt Natrium project was originally announced as a $1 billion facility, but the price tag has quickly quadrupled.

President Joe Biden’s administration, anxious to meet international goals to halt climate change, is all-in on Natrium. The Department of Energy is matching Gates dollar-for-dollar to develop “new” sodium-cooled reactor technology that has failed since it was first introduced on the U.S. submarine Seawolf in the 1950s.

Other attempts include the privately financed Fermi 1 site near Lake Erie, which was shut down in 1966 after a partial meltdown; and at Clinch River in Tennessee. The latter, a publicly funded project, was plagued by delays and huge cost overruns, and Congress finally shut it down in the mid-1980s due to serious safety concerns.

In his letter to Gates, Gunderson detailed the epic failure of the Monju sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor in Japan. It took a decade to build and was shut down in 1995 after four months due to a sodium leak and fire. Monju wasn’t reopened until 2010, and permanently halted a year later after a refueling accident.

The cost to the Japanese government? More than $11 billion. Meanwhile, after decades of expensive research, France’s nuclear agency has shelved plans to build a prototype sodium-cooled nuclear reactor.

“So now is the time to stop the Natrium marketing hype and free up those precious public funds to pursue low-cost and dependable renewable energy during the time frame necessary to help prevent catastrophic climate crises!” Gunderson concluded.

Many scientists agree. “The recent attention on nuclear energy is fully driven by the declining industry’s desperation for capital and its related lobby depicting it as a solution for climate change,” Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace told Deutsche Welle, a German news organization. “… It does so too late and at a far too high cost.”

The Kemmerer project at the Naughton coal-fired plant, owned by Rocky Mountain Power, has a timeline that will be difficult to meet unless every phase goes off without a hitch — something that’s nearly unheard of in the nuclear industry. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves permits, construction would begin in 2024, with the reactor in service only four years later.

PacifiCorp, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, estimates that it will take about 2,000 workers to build the plant in Kemmerer and 250 to operate it. It presents the ultimate lottery ticket for a small mining community whose future looked mighty bleak when PacifiCorp announced plans to close the coal-fired plant.

So, here’s today’s $4 billion question: What happens to Kemmerer and Wyoming if TerraPower’s critics are right and the plug is ultimately pulled for safety or economic reasons?

Wyoming will survive, but not without cost. It will have lost all the time and energy the state could have devoted to finding long-term solutions to diversify its economy and stop relying on fossil fuels.

And Kemmerer? The town has experienced so much uncertainty in recent years, I hope it would use any reprieve from the nuclear industry to its advantage. State government must step in and require TerraPower to pay enough for mitigation to ensure that Kemmerer won’t be left in the lurch.

If Gates is going to ride into town promising to be its economic savior, Wyoming needs to hold him to it. Don’t make us sic the posse on you, pardner.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Nicholas: I’m starting to sense there is significant dissension and differences of opinion within the nuke community about the natrium demo reactor. If this project fails, it will more than likely be due to legal, regulatory and political reasons and not technological reasons. If dissenters within your industry submit critical comments about the project during the public comment period of the Environmental Impact Statement it could kill the project or leave the door wide open for appeal of the decision to the Federal courts. Any comments submitted during the public comment period can be used in court later. The historical record of natrium projects will undoubtedly be submitted during the public comment period. And the issue of disposal of nuclear waste will be brought forward. I have an uncomfortable feeling about how the EIS review will go if my suspicions are right. You need to be very concerned about the legal, regulatory and political aspects of this project – I think they will be the deciding factor. Too much emphasis on technology at his point and not enough discussion about the other considerations.

    1. @Lee Campbell: Wherever there is an opening for public comment regarding any nuclear power project, there will be criticisms and objections coming from those who are ideologically opposed to all forms of nuclear. These objections tend to be based on emotion, ignorance and misconceptions, and with good counter-arguments, such criticisms can be blunted into having limited effect. The only reason criticisms from people who support some kinds of nuclear typically have more weight is because these tend to come from people who are more knowledgeable–and that is exactly the sort of quality information that a public comment process is ideally supposed to elicit. If the low- and bad-information criticisms are enough to halt a nuclear project, then that is a defect in the system, and withholding the informed criticisms would change or improve nothing about that. If it is only the informed criticisms which could halt a project like this, then presumably that would be because those criticisms have some validity. I think it would be contrary to the public good, and harmful to the future of nuclear power if valid criticisms were withheld or suppressed out of some misguided notion that pro-nukes need to present a united front in support of every nuclear project, including the inferior designs.

      I do agree we should pay attention to political factors, and the regulatory mess which has effectively killed innovation in the nuclear power sector for decades, but I think we also need to keep in mind that Bill Gates, General Electric / Hitachi, Bechtel, Terrapower, and NuScale are sinking hundreds of millions into older, more-established technology because they expect there will be no broad regulatory reform. In fact, their very business model depends on it. There are more revolutionary designs in development which could outperform and outcompete their own designs, so they benefit if the knotted mass of regulation remains in place for as long as possible to shut out the better designs. They also have outsized political influence, so if the present system is heavily biased by politics, all the more to their advantage.

      But I also think it is sensible to put heavy emphasis and scrutiny on the technology from the beginning. It’s how we make informed decisions, and it is the best hedge we have against bad designs getting pushed through merely because the backers are rich and politically-connected. And on that count, I don’t find it encouraging that the web pages and releases promoting the Natrium design are long on hype and short on technical substance. At the very least, there should have been a technical white paper released on this design by now, but if there’s one out there, they certainly aren’t making it easy to find.

  2. With the departure of Dave Lochbaum, the Union of Concerned Scientists lost nearly their entire reservoir of practical nuclear engineering experience. Ed Lyman, the author of this “report” has none. The Natrium demo plant is expected to have about the same power production per ton of natural uranium as current reactors. The full gigawatt-scale version could improve on that by a factor of more than 30. Sodium can indeed burn when exposed to air or water, but this is a pool type reactor that avoids pumping molten sodium through complex plumbing structures, and we really ought to be at a technology level where we can design and build a relatively simple tank that keeps out air and water. And I don’t know what scenario for “uncontrollable power increases” Lyman is imagining, but theory and computer simulations are showing that the Natrium should have a negative thermal coefficient for power production at all temperatures, so that as the fuel gets hotter, reactivity and heat production decreases. This still needs to be demonstrated, but that’s kind of the whole point of building a demonstration plant.

    And it is unsurprising that long-time anti-nuke Arnie Gundersen (who worked in the industry from 1972 to 1990, not 50 years) is skeptical and critical, but I’m skeptical and critical of Arnie Gundersen. This is the guy who advanced a preposterous “theory” that the large unit 3 explosion at Fukushima was due to a nuclear detonation in the spent fuel pool, caused by a prompt criticality, caused by the collapse of the fuel racks, caused by a hydrogen deflagration in the loading bay above the pool–and persisted in promoting this theory long after there were photos of the racks intact, undamaged, and not even dislodged. So he is either that ignorant of physics, engineering, and evidence (in which case, he is grossly misrepresenting his expertise) or he promoted a theory that he knew was bogus purely for the fearmongering sensationalism of it–and the media coverage and donations it would attract. Either possibility smells a lot like fraud, and any article that cites Gundersen as a source loses credibility points.

    This is not the same design as the reactor on the Seawolf, nor the same design as Fermi 1–which had a partial meltdown due to a partial blockage of pumped coolant. That’s not going to happen in a pool-type reactor. Monju was also a very different design. We almost never get new technology right on the first try, and I expect there will be some teething problems with the Natrium demo reactor. You can anticipate and eliminate a lot of problems with good engineering and computer simulations, but at some point you actually have to build something to show that it can work as intended. This is not a big-leap reactor, like the Elysium design, so it uses a lot of elements we have some experience with to help minimize the risk of serious unanticipated problems. Even so, this demo reactor will very likely be over budget and will probably experience some delays. That’s what usually happens when you are doing something for the first time, and unit 1 is probably not going to be market competitive. But solar and wind were not even close to market competitive for many years, and we had to prop them up with subsidies and purchase mandates to get them through that period. The demo reactors should at least give us a better sense of what sort of cost reductions could ultimately be achievable, and several of the new designs look like they could have cost-reduction curves much shorter and steeper than for wind and solar. We’ll only find out if we actually try.

  3. Thank You, Mr. Drake, for an objective clearheaded article. As usual well researched and informative.

  4. How about we build this nuclear plant near wherever Bill Gates or Warren Buffet live. Let them experiment and we can then jump on board. Until Wyoming, The United States and the World learn to conserve electricity and other sources of power we are doomed.

  5. The exact same geniuses who fear Gates’ microchip vaccinations can’t wait to get his high-risk failed nuclear reactor. How many of us remember the great Simpsons episode “Monorail” ? it’s on youtube in case you missed it.

  6. Cost Overruns:

    “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved”
    Willie Brown

    All for more money flowing into SW Wyoming. All for nuclear power. All for a nuclear waste depository in Wyoming. Yes, hate government waste. But rather here than California, and it has some private matching funds to the tune of 2 billion.

    You know the firebrand conservationists (especially in Teton County) will oppose this, they would oppose wind turbines in their backyard, too. Couldn’t care less if it shuts down 20 years from now. It is a test site. Wyoming won’t balance its budget by attracting a million more visitors to Teton County. Nuclear is economic diversification and does less harm than all the tourists do to the ecosystem when nuclear is done right, and there is no reason it can’t be done right. In 20 years, Nuclear Fusion may replace fission, just as natural gas is displacing coal (although still going strong now). Wyoming doesn’t have 20 years to wait for the next big thing. This is it, today.

  7. Thank you for this Take Drake!
    Since you mentioned the Fermi I partial core melt of October 5, 1966, I thought your audience would be interested in these two documents with url links. As you’ll see Fermi I is still a problem.

    The Fermi 1 Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor had a partial core melt October 5, 1966. Fermi 1 used liquid sodium as coolant, and was shutdown in 1972. Years later, May 20, 2008 the Fermi 1 caught on fire from sodium leaking from piping. Please see the License Event Report
    ML081790166
    https://adamswebsearch2.nrc.gov/webSearch2/main.jsp?AccessionNumber=ML081790166
    Document Title: LER 08-001-00 for Enrico Fermi, Unit 1 re Corrective Action Program.
    Document Type: Letter
    Licensee Event Report (LER)
    Document Date: 06/19/2008

    Fermi I – Sodium-Bonded Spent Nuclear Fuel

    The Fermi 1 Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor had a partial core melt October 5, 1966. Fermi 1 used liquid sodium as coolant, and was shutdown in 1972.
    Sodium-Bonded Spent Nuclear Fuel from Fermi discussed in this document.
    An especially dangerous configuration of Spent Nuclear Fuel.
    ML21140A434
    https://adamswebsearch2.nrc.gov/webSearch2/main.jsp?AccessionNumber=ML21140A434
    Document Title: 2021/05/20 Advanced Reactors GEIS Docs – Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Treatment and Management of Sodium-Bonded Spent Nuclear Fuel – Summary. DOE/EIS-0306
    Document Type: E-Mail
    Document Date: 05/20/2021

    Michael J. Keegan
    Don’t Waste Michigan

  8. There are proven nuclear technologies out there that would work better, such as the Westinghouse AP-1000 or the SMR which should be used. As a veteran of 37 years in nuclear power I am all for it, but use proven designs

  9. GENERIC EISs PROBABLY WON’T HOLD UP IN FEDERAL COURT. The courts have usually ruled against attempts to circumvent full EIS reviews. The classic example is Trump approving the Keystone XL pipeline without a full review. A full EIS on the natrium project could take 3-7 years – the comments would be really contentious with lots of cause for review by the Federal courts. WYDOT even had to go back and redo their EIS on the Togwotee Pass road construction because it didn’t properly address wetlands and wildlife crossing concerns. EISs have to be done right with full inclusion of everyone including the tribes. The natrium EIS could be a real challenge.

  10. Caution is wise, but like conservative philosophies, its inherent weakness is missed opportunities. That being said, apparently smaller plants with newer technology are designed to greatly lessen the impact if an accident happens, so it seems like the race is on and the risk is worth taking IF certain precautions are followed. Your article mentioned that France had put a stop on it, but the most recent article I found is that they are set to go forward with these smaller nuclear facilities. https://www.france24.com/en/france/20211013-france-unveils-nuclear-power-overhaul-with-eye-on-china

  11. Kerry’s right about extreme cost over runs on many nuclear projects. Remember WHOOPS in Washington State where the investors lost their bond money due to cost over runs and then the project was cancelled. And then there was a large project on Long Island which was way over budget and had to be shut down after almost $10 billion was spent. The large engineering firms and contractors and unions know how to run the price up with “change orders”, price escalations from CPI indexes, overtime, additional work, penalty clauses, etc. Oh, and then there are the inevitable lawsuits claiming interference with business practices – these can really be costly. Its possible to control costs on these large projects but very few project managers are skilled enough and experienced enough to pull it off and greed usually wins out.

  12. What other choice does Wyoming have , Kerry? .There are no other revenue -saving projects on the horizon except wind which, it seems, is blowing in the wind.. God forbid an income tax ! Education may be (temporarily) saved by the (temporary )stimulus from a ( possibly temporary) government few in Wyoming voted for part of will get diverted to a “savings account” which is not how prosperous states run their business . Unless I’ve missed something, there is no other major industry idea– except turning coal into something else– on the horizon. Why not think of nuclear power as financial chemotherapy– it may save your life but if it doesn’t you will die.

  13. Nuclear power is a great opportunity with great risk. As to “not in my backyard”, whose backyard would you propose? Without an answer, there is no possibility of any kind of technological advance. I would like to see an independent commission to oversee the project. It must include engineers, scientists, and economists, and industry experts. It must be independent of political parties and financial interests. This commission would be tasked with ensuring transparency in safety and costs.